Have you ever noticed how skilled children are at negotiation? Some of my hardest and most draining negotiation experiences were when one of my kids really wanted something. They were never in a position of strength in any of our negotiations but yet their persistence, creativity, and logical approach almost always paid off in the end.  Maybe I was a softy with my kids, or kids in general, or maybe we have something as a child but lose as we get older. Maybe it is not something we have, but the lack of something in a child – like the fear of losing a deal or our pride getting in the way – making them better negotiators.  To me, it appears when children want something, it’s not without ensuring the other party gets something too. They always offer something to get what they want. Whatever the case, it seems most people lose this skill as we get older but the good news is negotiation is a soft skill which can be honed through study, preparation, and experience.

Negotiation is a fact of life. Whether in business, Government, or the family, people reach most decisions through negotiation. Negotiation, for example, is the center point in federal contracting and, I would argue, a proposal is essentially a company’s initial bargaining stance with the Government. Evaluation Notices (EN) and Items for Negotiation (IFN) are prime examples of the Government coming back with “counter offers” or questions to better understand your initial offer. Any manager involved in the business development, capture, or proposal development process should understand negotiation and work to improve this essential soft skill.

There are volumes written about negotiation, most of which contradict each other. Books and articles are filled with negotiation strategy, tactics, tricks, behaviors, influential factors, use cases – the list continues. Most are written from a point of view where the reader will win all negotiations if they use the author’s model or approach. It is a competition and the reader will be better than the other party using their method. We all know, however, if there is a big winner there has to be a big loser. We also know situations dictate much of a negotiator’s strategies and tactics but in most cases tactical victories may result in strategic losses in the long run. There are situations when a strategic consequence does not matter but I contend one should always consider the other party’s interests. I am not recommending a one size fits all approach to negotiation, but a negotiation method where both parties walk away feeling good about their results will prove not only rewarding for you but will maintain lasting relationships or goodwill for future business, even when strategic consequences do not matter.

The book, Getting To Yes, by Harvard Negotiation Project directors Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, is a straightforward method for negotiating personal and professional disputes based on the belief that when each side comes to understand the interests of the other, they can jointly create options that are mutually advantageous, resulting in a wise settlement. I believe this book is a great approach to negotiation and is a great place to start in understanding and improving this skill.

Most of us think of negotiation in the form of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining, each party opens with their position on an issue. The parties then bargain from their separate opening positions to agree on one position. Haggling over the price of a souvenir in Mexico is a typical example of positional bargaining. Negotiators usually see two ways to negotiate using positional bargaining: soft and hard. Soft negotiators avoid personal conflict and make concessions readily in order to reach agreement. Hard negotiators, on-the-other-hand, see any situation as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme position and holds out longer usually wins. The authors of Getting To Yes argue that positional bargaining does not tend to produce good agreements. It is an inefficient means of reaching agreements and encourages stubbornness, which tends to harm the parties’ relationship.

Through the Harvard Negotiation Project, Fisher, Ury, and Patton developed a third way to negotiate. It is neither hard or soft, but rather, both hard and soft. This method of negotiation is called principled negotiation. Principled negotiation suggests that parties look for mutual gains whenever possible, and where their interests conflict, they should insist the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side. It is hard on merits, but soft on people. Principled negotiation can be used effectively on almost any type of dispute and is based on four principles of negotiation. These four principles are:

  1. Separate the people from the problem
  2. Focus on interests rather than positions
  3. Generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
  4. Insist the agreement be based on objective criteria

These principle are useful if the other party agrees with the method, but what if the other party won’t play? What if they are more powerful or use dirty tricks? The authors go into great detail covering these objections in the last three chapters of the book and use anecdotal illustrations to prove their principles work. If you are interested in this approach to Negotiation or just want to get started honing your negotiation skills, I strongly recommend reading Getting To Yes as a great starting point.

Please let us know how Agility can help you understand and win work in the federal market or set your company up for success.

-J. Michael Courtney


Works Cited
Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (2011), “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Updated and Revised.” Penguin Group Ltd, New York, NY.