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How to Open Negotiations

The Scotwork Team
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We talk a lot about how to negotiate through difficult discussions and either close deals or find alternatives that work for both parties. However, we rarely talk about the very start of crafting a deal.

How do you open negotiations effectively? How do you set the groundwork for a productive discussion? Let's talk through some of the steps you should take to ensure that you set a foundation for a good session at the bargaining table.

Do your preparation

We don't care how many times we have to say it; fail to prepare and prepare to fail! Your negotiation skills can only take you so far. You need to have some understanding of the other party and where they sit long before you both get to the table.

Our own research shows that over 40% of negotiators have indicated that they occasionally have no time to prepare. Meanwhile, LinkedIn revealed that 82% of top-performing salespeople (those hitting 150%+ of their sales target) "always" perform research before they reach out to prospects.

When you are prepared and have done the research, you can feel confident that you know what to expect from the other side. You should have an idea of their position and even some points that they are willing to compromise on.

What's more, if you have a negotiation partner, preparation is vital as it ensures that you are on the same page before you sit down. No one wants to end up in an awkward position where what they consider to be non-negotiables are suddenly flung off the table by their own partner.

Finalise your expectations

Again, this should be something you do long before you ever step into the negotiation room. 

A good negotiator should know the full scope of what they can offer during the bargaining process. A first offer is rarely accepted. While you should have the best outcome in mind, you might not necessarily reach that result. Even great negotiators sometimes need to walk away when discussions aren't benefiting them.

Negotiators need to know how much leeway they have to offer, especially if they are negotiating on behalf of a CEO or some other high-level executive. It would be extremely embarrassing to rescind a negotiated agreement because the terms actually can't be met.

Agree on an agenda

Every meeting should have an agenda. Whether it's a fresh deal ahead of you or your tenth negotiation with the same client, clear expectations and a solid agenda guide both sides.

Not only does an agenda clarify expectations and lay out the goals to achieve, but it can also ensure that talk remains relevant and that time is used efficiently. It can also help to set expectations for post-negotiation processes and expectations. Whether a successful deal has been made or not, the agenda should establish the next moves for all parties involved.

Identify the topics you wish to discuss and outline them in the agenda. Send it to the opposing party and give them time to make amendments as they see fit.

Set the tone

When you find yourself sitting across the bargaining table from the other party, you need to set the right tone for a productive negotiation process. Depending on the type of negotiation you find yourself in, this might look very different. A well-established relationship with a long-standing client could be friendlier and even more informal than a brand-new connection and the hopes of negotiating the first business deal.

Showing respect and gratitude for the other party's time and taking time to genuinely build a connection will pay dividends. This is also the time when you can best set your expectations for the outcome of the negotiation without having to explicitly state them.

Storming into the room and sitting down with body language that screams you would rather be anywhere but there will never make a good impression. Be calm and composed, and be prepared to make small talk or try to create connections. Build trust here at the start of negotiations and create a much smoother road for the rest of your discussions.

Establish your opening offer

When ready, present your opening offer. Many suggest that you should try to be the first to get your offer on the table.

There are advantages to this. We tend to demonstrate a cognitive bias where we put a lot of weight on the first offer suggested — sometimes called the "anchoring bias" — and this can be very valuable when trying to reach better negotiation outcomes. Being the first to suggest a figure creates a benchmark for all other numbers to be measured against. This aggression is often favoured by negotiators seeking a particular outcome.

Alternatively, you might want to see what the initial offer from the opposing party might be. Though you might lose a little power by giving them the first leg up, you should still have plenty of opportunities to regain some ground. Let them pitch first; discover if your thoughts align.

Be wary of an early "Yes"

You have been offered a "Yes"! That's a successful negotiation, right?

If it comes too early in the deal, then it might not be as good as it initially seems. You might actually have a bad deal in front of you. By pushing it with a sense of urgency, the opposing party could be trying to slip it past you without you realising the finer points.

Sometimes, we do sit down and kick things off immediately with an agreement and a proposal that everyone is happy with. However, we still need to be aware that nothing is set in stone until the contract has been signed. If there is a certain point you don't agree with or a clause that you don't think fully serves your best interests, don't be afraid to challenge it.

Many negotiations have started on a positive note, only to collapse due to other factors further down the line. Though an early "yes" can be a good sign that you are on the right path to an agreement, it does not mean guaranteed success.

Don't be afraid to ask for a break

Negotiations can take time. Though it sometimes seems like the only option is to push through and really aim for some sort of conclusion, it can often be better to take a break. Ten minutes, an hour, or even rescheduling for another date, a break of any sort can give both parties the chance to sit back and truly evaluate the negotiations thus far.

Establishing the expectation that you will be breaking the negotiation session is a good way to manage conflict from the moment you sit down with the other party. Everyone knows that a break will be coming. It can help to set a rhythm for proceedings and maintain the momentum of the discussion.

Start your next negotiation with confidence

By setting the tone and establishing expectations with confidence right from the beginning, you may find your next negotiation much easier to manage than others you have faced.

Remember, not every negotiation might be you trying to create value on behalf of your company or a client. You could be negotiating a better benefits package from a potential employer, or you could be discussing a pay raise as part of an annual review. Everyone should have a few negotiation skills under their belt. Along with developing good communication skills and the subtle art of persuasion, knowing how to start negotiations with a positive and productive mindset can prove invaluable.

Do you want to polish your negotiation skills and those of your team? With over 45 years of expertise, Scotwork's negotiation courses are suitable for beginners, intermediates, and experienced negotiators. Get in touch today to find out more about our learning and coaching solutions.


Want to know more about how Scotwork's experts approach preparation? Check out Episode 3 of the Deal Divas podcast to hear our experts discuss its importance!

The Scotwork Team
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