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The Importance of Preparation in Negotiation

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As the saying goes, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” When it comes to negotiating, there are no guarantees that preparation will get you the deal you seek, but not preparing is a recipe for failure. The negotiation process essentially comes down to two or more parties all trying to get the best out of a deal. Knowing who has what, who wants what and what they’re willing to give up for it is the art of having a great negotiation.

First Rule of Preparation in Negotiation

For 1,500 years, Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” has been the gold standard for doing battle of any kind, and make no mistake, negotiation is indeed a battle. Sun Tzu wrote, "Engage only when it is in the interests of the state; cease when it is to its detriment. Do not move unless there are advantages to be won."

This means that rule number one in negotiation is to ensure you have something to gain from joining the discussions. If you don’t have anything to gain, then you have something to lose.

Three Steps in Negotiating

  1. Eyes on the prize. Always know what you want. That’s your goal. Anything less is a compromise.

  2. Be informed. The more you know about all sides of the negotiation, the better your chances of finding your way to victory. Truly understand what the other side is offering. They may have overlooked loopholes or weaknesses that you can exploit for your advantage, but if you’re not aware of these in advance, it’s hard to understand the full potential of that offer.

  3. Unite your side. If you’re not negotiating on your own behalf, then you need your constituents or clients to truly believe in you. Get a mandate, get the resources you need and get their trust.

Head Games: Playing to Win

Designing a negotiation plan is fantastic, but it won’t do you any good if you’re not in the right head space when the game is afoot.

  • Be strong. Confidence and a business-like attitude matter immensely in a negotiation. So does being alert and unyielding. Have your goal that you’re after but be sharp enough to spot any misplays, loopholes or gaffes by the other side.

  • It’s business, not charity. You don’t owe anyone anything in a negotiation except honesty. Be ethical and honest but don’t give anything away.

  • Level the playing field. No one is in the lead once the door opens in a legitimate negotiation. If you have something to gain from it, then you’re in the game, and that’s all that matters.

  • Bring your poker face. Don’t have a “tell,” don’t show your hand and do not show your feelings. Take time to regroup in private if you need to but never reveal what you’re thinking until you’ve had a chance to compose your thoughts.

  • Relax. You have a BATNA in place, so you’re good if this negotiation doesn’t work out, right? So, relax.

BATNA: Knowing When to Walk

Sometimes, negotiating just won’t work for you. The other side could be unreasonable or greedy, and emotions can run hot. All kinds of things can get in the way. Harvard defers to the book “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” which espouses having a BATNA before you start negotiating.

BATNA stands for “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” In the case of a stalemate, the BATNA is plan B. Instead of leasing this property from an unyielding, punitive owner, what’s the next-best solution? Understand the point that for you represents one compromise too far and have a plan for walking away. That’s your BATNA.

For a BATNA to be a truly good plan B, you should have at least prenegotiated with the second party so you have an idea of what you can truly come away with.


Steffani Cameron is a nomad, writer, photographer, from Vancouver, Canada, who is slow-travelling the world for five years. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Vox Media, Kitchn, About, and more.