Business Sales Negotiation November 18, 2014

Advanced Negotiation Skills (3): Reading Between the Lines


Experienced negotiators know that there is a special ‘language’ for negotiating. It could be very abrasive, perhaps designed to destabilise the other side; or it could be quite emollient, to show how reasonable we can be, and both have their place.

We also know that often, what people say (and how they say it) isn’t always quite what they really mean. So a supplier might say: “We’ve got to have a price-rise”. But does that mean: “otherwise we will stop supplying you”, or “that is our fond hope”? It’s important to know which! Naturally, all good negotiators will make their best hopes sound as if they are the least they can accept. But where does the truth lie?

Equally, there are some things we can’t say - if we have any sense! We can rightly expect to be taken advantage of if we naively say how desperate we are to do a deal, or admit to pressures on us to settle that the other side might never otherwise have known about.

So the dilemma for all negotiators is:
  • if we are too ambitious, we might win no deal, when one was actually possible;
  • if we are too flexible, we might only win a fraction of what we might otherwise have done;
  • if we are too open in what we say about our situation, we may well be taken advantage of.

Accordingly, the language of negotiation is one of both selective revelation (“look what I could give you, if you…”) and concealment ("if I tell you how badly I want this deal, you might get greedy!") It is therefore the language of covert suggestion and subtle hints – or signals.

Some Examples

Signals do not make agreement inevitable, but they can certainly remove some conflict and open new possibilities.

What was said What was meant
“We couldn’t accept that, as things stand.” “We can accept that, but make it worth our while.”
“We never offer discounts for prompt payment normally.”  “Who is ‘normal’? Of course we might if you make it attractive to us.”
"These are our Standard Terms and Conditions..." “… which of course represent our very best position
“Shall we leave this topic for the moment, and look at…” “You aren’t addressing our core issue.”
“My boss wouldn’t let me agree to...”  “You aren’t dealing with the right person!”
“Our price for X units is £y per unit.”  “But much less for more units.”
“That seems very reasonable.”  “You could probably have asked for more if you really wanted it.”

Note the words underlined in the left-hand column are the verbal clues to the signal offering new possibilities.

Of course, some signals are non-verbal – and often unintentional! This is why the study of body-language can be so helpful; covering not just the overall body, hands, arms and legs, but the eyes, mouth, breathing rates and much else. Although accurate interpretation of non-verbal signals requires practice, the key is:

  1. to look at clusters of signals, rather than just individual components;
  2. then to identify changes in these.

Some Guidelines

  • Use signals to clarify subtly what sort of deal you might be willing to accept, what you may have to offer and how you want to proceed.

  • Explore their signals and, if you don’t understand them, don’t be shy in asking the other side to clarify them.

  • Ignoring signals prolongs argument. So always respond to theirs and, if your own signals are missed, repackage them and repeat them until they are understood.

  • Reward positive signals and their responses to yours – not intransigence!

Important Lessons

The use of signals, along with asking really good questions, are two of the greatest allies of any negotiator in establishing where common ground might lie to conclude a successful deal.

The secret is to ‘listen to the music behind the words’.

To find out more about Jeremy please click here.

This blog is part of a series of articles prepared for Vistage UK:

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