Mastering the art of negotiation

There is no magic formula to negotiation, says Cath Bishop, it’s a process of experimentation, learning, and developing a sophisticated lens through which you view each negotiating situation

Whether it was working out which member of the family was most likely to give you a biscuit or how to persuade that girl on the swings to move on and let you have a go, we have all been mastering the art of negotiation from our earliest memories.

As we get older, negotiation remains fundamental to our adult lives. In certain jobs it’s more obvious, when working in a deal-making or business partnerships role, but less obviously, we are all involved in developing our teams and managing.

There is almost no job (outside being a Trappist monk) where working with others isn’t fundamental to achieving our aims. Outside work too, we are all navigating the challenges of making marriages and partnerships work and creating a thriving community of family and friends.

How can we better at negotiating? Firstly, there are no magic formulas. Secondly, as with most things, practise is key. Getting good at negotiating requires an ongoing commitment to learn, reflect and adapt. It’s not a skill to tick off and stick on your CV. It’s a continual process of experimentation, learning, and developing an ever-more sophisticated lens through which you view each negotiating situation.

The best opportunities to hone your negotiating expertise occur in daily life if you are open to them, rather than training programmes and courses. Every meeting in every organisation – and we all know how much time is spent in meetings – offers us a chance to learn. There are then three areas to start experimenting with and learning about: preparation, review and adaptation, connection.


Preparation is the first part of negotiation. That might involve looking at the agenda ahead of the meeting, identifying key issues where you want to influence others most, and turning up three minutes earlier to connect with other attendees, rather than rushing in five minutes late wondering which meeting you’re in.

Reviewing and adapting is the second part and forms a continuous learning journey for your skills as a negotiator. This needs to go beyond reviewing agenda items and action points, to consider the human experience in the room. That means considering the mindsets that you were working with, what beliefs did others hold, and what did you do to cement or shift those? What else could you do to help move thinking at a deeper level, beyond simply articulating your reasons and viewpoint?

If there isn’t buy-in to your point of view, implementation will not follow. Consider the mood, behaviours and feelings of others and how that has impacted on their positions? How else might you bring them onside? Start to develop a range of influencing tactics, don’t just stick to evidence and data, use stories, give examples from other companies or sectors, bring in others to explain your position differently.

The aim of a negotiator is to broaden the thinking of everyone involved, to create a wider shared area where you might all reach agreement. Narrow, long-held hardened views create the challenge. Think about asking ‘what if’ questions to take others to a safe and hypothetical world to consider things that currently they are resisting.

Coaching questions can be useful to shift others’ thinking, strong statements usually only increase resistance. This learning phrase involves tuning into what is happening ‘beneath the surface’, studying mindsets, behaviours and relationships.


Curiosity is an extremely useful tool here and links into the third element of successful negotiation: connection with others. Not connection in the sense of text messages and WhatsApp chat, but in the sense of building a relationship with your counterparts. Do you know what your negotiating partners really care about deep down? Do you know what energises them when they get out of bed in the morning? Do you know their beliefs and drivers?

This was the mentality that I took into diplomatic negotiations when working as a British diplomat. A lot of time was spent reading complex briefs about the technical subject matter of a negotiation, whether a peace agreement, an outline for a new political reform or a communique for world leaders to agree at a global summit. But the real meat of the negotiation, the part that determined whether you were able to influence things in the direction you wanted, depended on the dynamics of the interaction. How many people did you get on board with your approach? What else could you do to bring others on board? What is the mood of the room, what are people thinking and feeling behind the typically generic words they are using? By reflecting on these, sharing your perceptions with others in your negotiating team and challenging each other’s assumptions, you can start to create deeper connections.

Before I went on my first diplomatic posting to Sarajevo in Bosnia, I remember meeting with a wise and eminent Ambassador to listen to his advice and glean some tips gathered over a glittering diplomatic career. I was expecting deep insights into the complex history of the Balkans. What I got was quite different.

He spoke about the key criteria for success, for negotiating effectively and influencing others positively, which depended on three things:

1 Get to know the person behind the role.

2 Listen more than you speak.

3 Find what you have in common.

Getting to know the person behind the role is the first step to connecting beyond a transactional level, necessary to help scope out what might be possible within the negotiation. All too often, we judge people according to their titles, focusing on their seniority, their power within the system. But if we want to develop an ongoing relationship and work to make a positive change in the world together, we need to start understanding more about each other, backgrounds and experience, life beyond job roles.

Condaleeza Rice gave a talk when she visited the Foreign Office on her farewell tour as US Secretary of State. I was expecting deep political insights into the Middle East tensions or shifts in international power, but again, the thing she focused on as being critical to her successes – and failures – had been her ability to connect quickly and genuinely with her political counterparts and negotiating partners around the world.


Listening is probably the most critical element in connecting. Not just listening to the first thing that others say. The longer a person speaks, the closer they get to what they really want to say. The first position and statement that a person gives in a negotiation is often conservative and tells you little of where you might get to.

It’s the same when building rapport with people, you start on safe ground, discussing clichés and facts – weather and transport are hugely popular in the UK. That’s a good place to start, but the important thing is to move on from there, to start to move to higher risk areas of what you and others are thinking and feeling, opinions and ideas, options and alternatives. As the risk increases, and people share more of themselves, so trust starts to grow.

The art of listening is often underappreciated. People see the stereotype of negotiating as being about who shouts loudest, who has the best reasoned argument. Courtroom dramas and images from Prime Minister’s Question Time don’t help. Negotiating requires skilful listening, to what’s not said as much as what is said. And get comfortable with a ‘listening silence’, where you show that you are still actively engaged and listening, when after a pause, the most useful and critical information is then often shared.

As recent politics has shown us, no-one ever shifts their views due to the force of a great rational argument, due to the views of experts, so let go of those, and listen.

Listening then lays the foundations for finding common ground. Faced with political, linguistic, cultural and historical barriers, common ground was not often easy to come by in the diplomatic world, but it was the Holy Grail. It was where new beginnings, exciting opportunities to do something different started. In tough negotiations over centuries-old disputes, we were trained to always look for what’s possible, to avoid being overwhelmed by the impossible and the intractable.

We are all practising our negotiation skills daily. The question is how effectively are we learning and adapting our negotiating techniques? Be sure to be a proactive student of negotiation, to learn from every interaction, whether in the boardroom or dining room.

Dr Cath Bishop is Senior Performance Consultant at leadership consultancy Will it Make The Boat Go Faster

Drawing on her unique combination of experience, Cath understands the resilience and leadership required to manage complex challenges. She leads seminars on topics including resilience, leadership, high performing teams, peak performance and dealing with pressure, and has worked with clients such as Rolls Royce, Coca Cola, Microsoft and many others.

In her rowing career, Cath competed at three Olympic Games, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, with highlights including winning the World Championships in 2003 and an Olympic silver medal in 2004. As a diplomat specialising in conflict issues, Cath was posted to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Basra, Iraq, as well as leading in Whitehall on the UK civilian contribution to conflicts around the world.

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