Interview

Expert advice from professional negotiator and author, Herb Cohen

Hannah Smalltree, News Writer
Why did Gartner select you to speak at their business intelligence (BI) summit? Do you have an information technology background?
I know a lot about information technology, although that's not my background. I have worked for some of the biggest, the best and the most effective companies in that field for many years. The whole history of information people in technology and data management is different than that of any other group. What do I mean by that? When they started out, they often weren't even housed in the same facility as the sales and the operations people. When they asked for something -- hardware or software -- management didn't know what they were talking about, so they said "just give it to 'em." That history of data processing affects the orientation of people and affects how they tend to view things today. How so?
You go from a very technical orientation, where you were successful, to dealing with someone who's exercising leadership in a very sophisticated way in today's world. The IT project executive operates in an organizational web of tension where power is diffused, information proliferates and there are all these tight deadlines. In this environment -- the project executive has got to understand a lot about negotiating. Can you offer any tips for negotiating that are specific to the business world?
All negotiations involve commonality and conflict -- you can't have one without the other. You always start with commonality. Talk about the weather,

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talk about your family -- take on the smallest issue first, one that can easily be solved, then talk about another small issue and save the zero sum issue for the very end. Why? You want to get the person invested in the process. Once people invest, it's hard to divest. Rats and human beings have this in common: The more energy expended in pursuit of a goal, the more desirable that goal tends to become. That's how I approach the sequence of negotiations. Do you have a process for negotiating?
First, see negotiating as a game -- one of the reasons we do poorly in negotiations is we get too emotionally involved. Our adrenaline starts flowing. We become "doped up" and "dumbed down," and we do poorly. Therefore, every time you go into a negotiation, you should think in terms of alternatives and options. See negotiating as a game, but a game best played as one of addition, and not subtraction or exclusion.

Then, see yourself as a problem solver. Ask, "How can I work this out in a way that is profitable to both sides?" Say, "Let's see if we can make the pie bigger, before we start arguing about who gets bigger slices or who gets more pieces." Together, try to figure out what the other side's underlying concerns, interests and needs are, and what yours are, and figure out a solution, which provides for joint gain.

Finally, in the business world in negotiating -- dumb is better than smart. Inarticulate is better than articulate. Train yourself to say, "I don't know. I don't understand. Help me." In other words, you come on in a cooperative fashion with what I term, "the low-key pose of calculated incompetence." Really interesting things happen when you don't know what the rules are, and you don't know what you can, or can't, do. It makes the whole thing that much more creative.

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BI and other technology projects require dealing with many different people -- from technical developers to salespeople to executives. How can someone negotiate effectively with very different types of people?
Adapt your style. I've already mentioned that it should be cooperative, with this low-key pose of calculated incompetence. Try to get the other side to talk. Ask questions rather than give answers. Obtain information and try [to find] out why the other side is saying no. You want to actively listen to them and show them that you're listening by looking at them. Don't argue or bait, don't show the other side where they're wrong, foolish, uninformed or not technically adept. Try not to be judgmental and always take notes. How important is it to bring data -- facts, figures, statistics, history, etc. -- into the negotiating process?
Recognize that decisions are not going to be made purely based upon facts or figures or even history. It takes time for people to get used to a new idea. Even when you bombard them with the facts, figures and statistics -- they'll find reasons why they're not doing [what you want] that have nothing to do with facts or figures. If you want people to buy what you propose, you have to allow time for them to get used to a new idea.

There's also a lot of soft stuff involved that you can't program. Going from no to yes, from reluctance to commitment, is not based on facts alone. It's based upon how people feel about the other side -- "Do I trust this person? Can he or she be relied upon?"

People think when you negotiate, you tell jokes. No, you don't tell jokes, and you don't put down any group of people ever. You want to use humor, but the humor should be self-deprecating humor. Make fun of yourself! People relate to that. It humanizes you. If you do this, negotiations will just go so much smoother.


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