The Most Important Question To Ask Before A Negotiation

Volumes have been written on planning for negotiation, and at our live in-house events around the world we always include a module on planning for negotiation. 

Most of the planning for negotiation involves the answering of questions – questions about the situation, the other party, best and worst case scenario, etc.

Some questions are more important than others.  The most important question going into a negotiation is simple, but determines the tone, the strategy and tactics.  In fact, if you are not clear on this question, the rest of your planning may not be beneficial at all.

Here it is:

Is this negotiation a “one-shot deal” or a relationship based negotiation?

This simple question highlights a fundamental difference in the way individuals view negotiation and their style when they negotiate.

Many people regard negotiation like two gunfighters shooting it out in the street.

This set-up is adversarial, hostile, and causes high stress/low trust relationships.  Because of that, it’s often a win-lose scenario.

There’s another approach to negotiation.

In this mindset, instead of an adversarial position, two people are working on a problem together, and hopefully, arriving at a solution between them.  Everything changes when people work together in this way.  Stress goes down.  Trust begins to build. 

Interestingly enough, both these models are very effective.

The first can be a great model when you find yourself in a “one-shot-deal” situation. 

The second is great when you are in a situation where the relationship is long range, and you have to juggle results right now, and working with the other party after the negotiation is over.

I find it’s very rare to find one individual that excels in both of these worlds.  Most of us have a natural leaning toward one or the other of these styles, and it’s the one we shine in.

Moreover, most of us negotiate out of habit.  If find that when a relationship negotiator (the second model) finds himself in a one-shot deal situation, more often than not, they utilize a relationship model even in a one shot deal.

I’m a history buff at times, and am an admirer of Abe Lincoln.  Lincoln was a great guy, but he was peculiar.  For entertainment he would walk thru graveyards, looking at epithets.  I think that’s odd – reading epithets for fun.  He came across a grave and the epithet read: “Here lies a lawyer and an honest man” Lincoln said it was the first time he had ever seen two men buried in one grave!

I feel the same about negotiation styles.  It’s very rare to find an individual that can excel at both.

A perfect negotiator is one who can project the style of the first, while underneath he is the gunfighter. That’s a dangerous person to negotiate with.