The Power of Objectivity in Negotiations

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One of the reasons that Vistage CEOs grow 2-3X faster than competitors (results of D&B studies), is that members get objective insights and perspectives from other seasoned CEOs.  Try as hard as they do, our friends, colleagues and service providers often fail to really give us the unbiased input we’d like.

Tom Koulopoulos, in One Negotiation Strategy That will Make you a World-Class Negotiator, notes that the power of objective input is invaluable in many other areas, especially in negotiations. Here, each side, despite best efforts to control emotions, is emotionally committed to winning. And while they are trying to separate their personal interests from the issues, emotion undoubtedly has influence. He recommends that the negotiator brings along a “silent observer” to see the entire context of the “contest”, without being drawn into the “ego” battle of each negotiator. The goal is not to add anything to the negotiation, nor detract by  engaging, note-taking, or reacting; it’s just to pay attention to nuances of both parties’ actions and behaviors.

Like the role of a navigator on the flight deck of a complex aircraft, the job is to provide the information to guide the pilots in making correct decisions about their actions and the implications of their actions. For example, changes in body language, intonation, use of language, and pretty much anything that signals emphasis, retreat, increased interest, or exposed nerve endings of either party will be abundantly apparent to a silent observer.  While most people will not agree to being recorded during a negotiation, having another person in the room is rarely opposed.

In specific, he suggests these key functions:

  • Track the emotional tempo of the negotiation.
  • Watch for triggers that communicate a change in attitude or demeanor by either party
  • Identify when to take a break
  • Provide a playback of the negotiation from their vantage point
  • Temper the emotional involvement of the negotiator
  • Pick up on missed opportunities for the negotiator to explore a particular topic deeper.

As I read the article, my mind travelled back many years when I was asked by a client to be a silent observer to an initial negotiation conversation between him and a giant telecom company. His company wasn’t delivering the contracted technology on time; the buyer was threatening to sue. By listening, I heard that the client was feeling pressured by the legal department to sue my client, but really didn’t want a suit; she wanted a firm commitment for the products. During the break, I shared that insight with the client – and my perception that she wanted the technology badly enough that she would stand up to the legal department. With that, my client made an offer to deliver at a later time, with concessions for being late, and she told the legal department to back-off so she could get what she really wanted.

Building on that experience, I’ve incorporated it into my negotiations class. Students need to go out and purchase something they want and take with them another student who will serve as silent observer. The latter, with no emotional “skin-in-the-game” sees things the former misses in how the negotiations could have unfolded. Next, the first silent observer engages in a negotiation on behalf of the other person (who now actually serves as the silent observer). They discover that a negotiator who lacks emotional skin in the game usually gets the desired product or service more easily (e.g., faster and/or cheaper.)