Negotiations that get off to a good start are apt to end better.  I’ve attended negotiations where the atmosphere was so loaded with hostility and distrust that fruitful bargaining was not possible.  Moments after the parties met, recriminations for past shortcomings dominated the discussion and triggered deepening anger.  Further talks to quiet both sides fell on deaf ears.

It’s helpful to open with “non-task” talk.  Talk about anything that will establish modest ties together.  Speak of the weather, a recent sports event, a current movie, a breaking news story on the internet, or something funny that someone on television said.  Also helpful is small talk about mutual friends and acquaintances that open the relationship door between parties in non-threatening ways.  Inquiries as to the health and welfare of family members and children are usually welcome if done with discretion.  “Non-task” talk is not a waste of time as some think; it is a catalyst that makes difficult bargaining flow more smoothly.  Don’t be surprised though if you occasionally have to deal with someone who won’t abide with small talk.  They are strictly business.  They may not appreciate or reciprocate your attempts to establish rapport.

“Non-task” conversation is an important part of the negotiating process. The paradox is that it is all the more necessary when the parties do not enjoy a strong relationship prior to entering into negotiations.  When they already have a good relationship, light talk develops in a natural way and smoothes the path to agreement even when the differences are wide.

Another action we can take is to make it easier to negotiate is to break bread or meet with others on a regular basis long before difficulties occur.  Good rapport with associates is something we should deposit in our relationship savings account.  When too much time passes between each lunch it becomes hard to re-establish the level of rapport that existed earlier.  “Let’s meet for lunch next week” is not nearly as good as, “Let’s have lunch on Mondays every two weeks.”  Regularity is important.

It is also good to open talks with verbal assurances about your strong desire to reach a fair and reasonable agreement.  Bill Van Allen, a superb high-level executive and negotiator, always opened his negotiations by personally assuring the other side of his regard for their relationship and of how much he valued a fair and reasonable settlement.  He told them in no uncertain terms that he was open to anything they had to say and would do all he could to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome. His message was simple but important: higher management expected the negotiators to maintain their strong relationship and to reach a fair agreement.

Being treated nicely stays with you during the negotiation and long afterward, whatever the outcome.  Contrast that with those who negotiate by tactlessly saying what they please, making you uncomfortable or criticizing everything you say.  There are people who negotiate that way, especially when they have power.  Such discourtesy and intimidation have no place in the workplace where relationships are so crucial to long-term success.

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