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Secrets of Master Negotiators

Most business executives are regularly required to get involved in negotiations, but few are trained in negotiating skills, says Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins. In an article in Working Knowledge, the school's online publication, Watkins points to several key principles of successful negotiating.

Don't view the negotiating situation as fixed or preordained, Watkins says. Shape the negotiation, rather than reacting to the other side's moves. That may involve controlling the issue agenda, selecting the people who will be involved, and deciding in advance what will be linked to the negotiation and separated from it.

Controlling the process of negotiation can directly impact the outcome. Some negotiations are best handled on a one-on-one basis, while others are better suited to groups. Informal or back-channel communication away from the table may be helpful in some cases but dangerous in others. Most important, if the negotiation process is seen as unfair or illegitimate, it may be followed by continuing disagreement, regardless of the formal result.

A negotiator must understand that the goal is a purely voluntary agreement, but that coercive power, including explicit or implicit threats, may sometimes be required. Diplomacy backed by force is often more effective than diplomacy alone. If the other side feels it has been coerced into an agreement, however, it may escalate its resistance or violate the agreement later, Watkins warns.

The momentum of negotiation is an important ingredient in its success, he says. Getting some early agreement, even on small details, helps build momentum for further agreement. Structuring the negotiation so that it is difficult to reverse those initial compromises also helps.

Finally, Watkins notes, negotiators must pay attention to the way their own team is responding to the negotiation process. During and after the formal negotiating process, the agreement must be "sold" to managers and other constituencies within each of the organizations involved. The negotiator must communicate the objectives and benefits of the negotiation to his or her own team, and garner their support. For more news and comment