Negotiate Like Bruce Willis

Negotiate like Bruce Willis
Most of us when we think about negotiation we tend to think of Bruce Willis the actor in the brilliant movie Fifth Element when the bad guys demands that they send someone to negotiate… Bruce Willis’s character accepts the challenge and calmly shoots the alien in the face and then asks if anyone else wants to negotiate. That’s one way of doing it but it won’t work in business. Perhaps you think that negotiation is for captions of industry like Donald Trump, Richard Branson or even or heads of state. Actually it is not. You negotiate every single day. I am sure you negotiated traffic today or that seat on the train. You negotiated a deal on your house or car and you even negotiated your salary. I hope! It is something that you do so naturally that you don’t even realize you are doing it. The question is are you doing it well?

Negotiation is the process that you use professionally and personally to solve a problem, to make a decision or to resolve conflict. That act of negotiation should not be something that you shy away from because the results can be beneficially to all parties concerned. If you enter into it with an open and positive mind you can reach agreement creatively and get results that you may never have thought off. As they say two heads are better than one!

The chief skill of negotiations is communication. That is obvious! I’ll break it down and put the skills into order of importance. You will not be surprised to hear me say that the top three skills of negotiation are listening, empathy and questioning. Without these three you do not stand much of a chance of reaching a positive outcome.

The thing is this we hear but we do not listen. Hearing and listening are two different things. Listening is a skill that requires you to empty your mind of assumptions, pre-planned comebacks or retorts. In my negotiation class which I run for the Microsoft Corporation I run an exercise that you will remember from when you were young. It is called the telephone game. Simple and effective. The first round’s focus is hearing. I give a participant 3 words which they must pass on to the next person and so on without repeating them or clarifying them. As the words are passed on to each participant you can see the bewilderment on people’s faces. By the time it gets to the last person the 3 words become nonsense. In one class one word changed from English to the German word for smoking weed. Go figure! The second round of the exercise a different set of words are passed from participant to participant. This time they use active listening skills.

Which are:
Repeating what you have heard

Paraphrasing and summarizing

Checking for understanding

Making verbal noises of encouragement

Asking questions

In the 2nd round when the 3 words get to the last participant it is exactly the same 3 words. Thus proving the power of active listening. How do you develop listening skills? It’s quite easy really stop talking. Stop the chatter in your head. Stop judging the person before they have actually said what they want to say and stop interrupting. Listen to talk radio. Play devil’s advocate. When you listen you are actually bonding with the other party on a humanistic level.

Try this next time you are in a conversation with someone:

-Listen to what the other party is saying. This gives you the content level

-How they say it. This gives you their ability to get their message across

-Listen if they repeat certain words. This tells you what is important for them

-Listen to note if there is emotion in the voice. This gives you the level of feeling or how attached they are to the subject.

Hand in hand with active listening is the powerful skill of empathy. Easy to say, hard to do. But when you get it right it can take your interpersonal skills to another level. To show empathy to another is to show that you understand what is going on for them in their world. Everyone wants to be understood right! When people feel understood they relax in your company and open up to your suggestions. Just simple phrases like “I understand…” “I appreciate your point of view…” and “I respect that…” can make a world of difference to the conversation.

The last of the big 3 skills is questioning. Become a master interrogator. Do you remember the T.V cop series Colombo? He was this disheveled detective who most people underestimated… at their peril. He just kept asking questions in a way that fooled people into thinking he was completely out of his depth and he didn’t know what he was doing. I recommend the Colombo approach, not to manipulate the other party, rather to give your inquiry a lighter touch. Say something like “I am just curious…” “Could you explain to me…?” “I must be missing something tell me why” You can influence and persuade others by simply asking questions in this way. By asking the question you gently get them to question themselves!

The missing ingredient

The most important ingredient in negotiation is you and your attitude towards it. Think about it. If you wanted to bake bread you need raw ingredients. If you put all the ingredients into the mix and then in an oven… voila you have bread. The better the ingredients the better the taste of the bread. It works the same for your approach to negotiations. So if you fill your head with all sorts of negativity and trepidation and then expect to get a successful outcome… It isn’t going to happen! In order to have a successful negotiation you have to have a positive mental approach and be ready.

Once you have your mind in the right gear then you can move on to look at your process. I tend to like the simple approach so here is one that is easy to follow.


If you go into negotiation and you have not planned then you are setting yourself up for failure. Further to that you may be setting yourself up for humiliation when you find out that the other party has bothered to plan. How does the saying go?

“Prior planning prevents piss poor performance”.

When you plan you do not only think about what you are going to say, you also think about what the other party interests are. You anticipate their questions and you answer them yourself. You consider the objections to your proposal and you come up with solutions and work arounds. In other words get inside their heads and be one step ahead. If you are going for a job for example don’t just look at the company website everyone does that. Look at what their customers are saying about them. Look at their blogs and customer interface. The reason why you are being interviewed for a job is to solve the problems that their customers have. You can only know this by preparing.

Decide your objectives in advance

Think about what your desired outcome is and work back from that. How do you propose to get it? Most people look at the problem. When you fixate on a problem it gets larger. By focusing on the desired state you keep the negotiations positive. The other thing which is important here is to think about your plan B. A plan B is called BATNA in negotiation circles. This means a best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It stands to reason that if you have alternatives it will strengthen your resolve and gives you a lot more confidence.

Establish areas of common ground or conflict

When you go into a negotiation try to think about all the things that you both have in common. There may be more than you think. Both of you want a positive outcome. Both of you want to succeed. Both of you want the best. When you focus on common ground it enables you to establish rapport with the other party and sets a feeling of collaborators rather than opponents.

If there are areas of conflict then set them aside and work on the common ground issues first. After that you can go back to the conflict areas. They may not be so difficult now that you have rapport with the other party. Because both of you have made progress the other party may not be so willing to hold on to their conflict issues so tightly. If you start on the conflict issues it will drag everything down.

Bargain effectively

This is where you put forward your proposals. What are your ‘must have’ and what are you willing to trade. Sell the benefits of your proposal but be flexible and listen to all suggestions seriously.

Look for signals. It is a good idea to pay attention to body language during negotiations because when people feel out of their comfort zone they give off all sorts of cues. Look for the other party touching themselves more than normal which shows unease. They may suddenly fold their arms which can indicate that they have become defensive. All of these movements are indicators and can help you to better ‘read’ and build up a picture of the other party.

Reach agreement

Summarize the outcome

When agreement has been reached, take the coordinating role of tying up all loose ends. It is important to restate the main features and benefits of the negotiated topics so that all parties are clear about what they are getting and what they are getting into. Follow up with an email as soon as you can!

Now let look a few approaches to Negotiations

Adversarial based negotiation ABN

The ABN approach is one that you can adopt if you do not care about building a relationship with the person. It is a one off. Even so, it is always a good idea to be straight, fair and work in integrity. You never know right when stuff may come back to haunt you.

The adversarial approach

Ask for more than you expect to get.

So, let’s say that I want to negotiation my salary at a job interview. The offer on the table is, for argument sake 20 thousand Euros. I have done my homework and I decide that I want 25. I will not ask for 25 because if I do the only way to go is down. So I ask for 30 thousand. How do I arrive at 30 you say and why don’t I ask for 40 thousand or something like that. Well if you ask for 40 thousand it shows that you have no idea what the market price is for your job. The formula is called bracketing. First you have to know what is on the table. Second you have to decide what you want and off course you have to have a plan B. What you do next is take away the figure of what they (the company) are willing to give and the figure you want (which in the example is 5) and add it to the figure of what you want, so 25 and 5 is 30. So you ask for thirty. So now the negotiation gap is between 20 and 30. Most people tend to want to meet somewhere in the middle. This creates win win. It is important not to be too rigid if it is the job of your dreams…if they cannot offer you more than 22, then you may take it and think about what else they can offer you. Training? Travel? Working from home? Who knows… you are only limited by your own creativity. Whatever the offer is, take a moment to think it over. For two reasons: One you want to check if it is a good offer or did you get carried away in the heat of the moment. Two, if you say “ Yes too quickly somewhere in the back of the other parties mind they will think that if they held out a bit longer they could have talked you down…and that is not win/ win.

It is normal in negotiations when you say you want a certain thing for the other party to exclaim, don’t be afraid of the wince or the sudden intake of breath…this tells you that you have picked it right. If they were to say something like “don’t be ridiculous” then you have pitched it too high but if they wince that’s OK. Now is the time to persuade them why they should employ you or buy your brand.

It is a good idea in this type of negotiation to try not to make the first offer. If the other party insists them make the offer so ridiculous that they have to say something. When they do then you have established the negotiation gap right there.

Interest based negotiation IBN

IBN approach is the one to choose when you have a long term relationship with the other party and you want to perverse it. In this approach you are hard on the problem and soft on the person. It is important to show flexibility. So do not go into the detail of the topic to be negotiated before you have established:

The outcome. What is the desired outcome for you both?

The criteria. Using criteria keeps the conversation from becoming heated and you can use the criteria to stay on track.

How decisions will be made. You need to establish this so that everyone feels comfortable.

How people will be treated in the proceedings. This is like a code of conduct. So you could say that we will give every idea a fair hearing. We will not talk over anyone who’s talking.

In my negotiation class I set up an exercise where people can get emotional and lose sight of the objective. The task is to agree a charity to which the whole class will give an equal amount of money. In my experience of training, people seldom establish ground rules and criteria. They prefer to get straight into it. It becomes a war of words and emotions. Establish criteria prevents stuff from becoming emotional.

There are so many dirty tricks in negotiations it is almost impossible to cover all of them. People will do anything if they are desperate. Here are a few of the most common.

Dirty trick



Deadlines All deadlines are moveable. If someone is pushing on a deadline ask

“What will happen if we do not reach your deadline” do not be intimidated by deadlines.


Good cop bad cop This one is used when the other party says something like “Please can you do this for me otherwise my boss is going to kill me”. Do not succumb to this.   Say something like “This sounds like good cop/bad cop on the T.V” Gently remind them that you are on to them.
Cherry picking If the other party wants to cherry pick. That is to say they want this but they reject something else. Point out to them the consequences of not accepting the full option.
Putting your product services or company down Say “I am sorry that you feel this way I hope it will not affect us working together today” Whatever they say or do…do not retaliate.




When they get angry Do not take it personally

Listen actively

Empathise. Maybe they have a right to be angry

Address the problem and not the anger


If they want to speak to your manager This is a tricky one. Some people say that they if they want to speak to my manager then I pass them on. I say try to hold on as much as possible to the negotiations. Once it is out of your hands you have no control. Passing someone on to your manager to deal undermines your credibility in the eyes of the other party and eventually in the eyes of your manager. This is not a good thing when it comes to job review and promotion time.

Finally take every opportunity to practice your negotiation skills. Go to the markets and watch how the market traders provide real life shows on how to negotiate. You may think that they engage in mindless banter but really what they are doing is sizing you up. Try negotiating for better deals with stuff you buy for your home. Can you get a better deal on the electricity, gas whatever… So many companies are in competition so it is worth a shot. What do you have to lose? You may think that that kind of negotiation is not the one you want to engage in. That is not the point; the point is to think like a negotiator all the time.

So the next time they say “Send someone in to negotiate” You will not need Bruce Willis!

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