We don’t all wake up every morning or go into work thinking about what we’re going to negotiate that day, but as former top-skilled FBI hostage negotiator, academic and author Chris Voss would say, “life is negotiation.”
That definition may seem simple, but what really is negotiation? After reading his best-selling book, Never Split The Difference as part of a much-enjoyed work book club, I’ve narrowed down my description to the following: listening with intent, gathering information to guide the conversation and leading with empathy to achieve the desired result, no matter what that is.
If you really slow down and focus on your day-to-day, you’ll realize that most interactions are a negotiation, from deciding which movie to watch with a friend, discussing work tasks with colleagues and even getting your kid to clean his/her room.
Why is negotiation important, and how can we use it as PR and digital marketing professionals?
In mastering the art of negotiation, you learn how to truly listen. While reading Chris’s book, I learned that many of us aren’t always the best listeners – guilty – and would rather split the difference or compromise than press on for what we want. Listening is hard, and we usually fail at it because we are always trying to be a few steps ahead – thinking about what to say next or simply settling to avoid what we perceive as a conflict. In the midst of it all, we often overlook and miss important details that can help us to a) fully understand the other person’s goals, b) figure out what makes them tick and c) get what we really want. Whether you are pitching a new client, asking a reporter to include a client in their upcoming article or dealing with a comms crisis, familiarizing yourself with a few simple negotiation strategies and tactics can help you net more desirable outcomes. And because I loved his book so much, I wanted to provide some key takeaways to our community of readers who can hopefully take these tools and apply them to their own personal and professional lives – just as I aim to do.
A crucial point throughout the book is that while we as humans might think long and hard about something or make calculated and rational decisions, our ultimate decision-making process is based on emotion. This is an important lesson in the overall theme of the book tied to the notion of empathy and taking the time to really understand the person in front of you and what they need – a part of our character we can nurture and cultivate to connect with others on a deeper level, and essentially get what we want out of an interaction.
Choose your tone wisely
Have you noticed that the tone in which someone speaks to you impacts how you feel about him/her and the overall interaction? The person in front of you might have an authoritative and firm voice, which might come off as intimidating and scary. Another might speak softly and with a lower tone of voice, making you feel more at ease. In other words, when it comes to communicating with clients and colleagues, the tone in which you speak can impact the overall comfort level others have towards you. In his book, Voss brings up the example of using his “FM DJ voice” (low, calming) to create an environment of warmth and trust. In addition to the FM DJ, there is also the positive/playful voice – which he suggests using with most interactions for an easygoing, light-hearted conversation – and the direct/assertive voice for rare circumstances when you just want to signal your dominance and control over the other (not recommended).
Be a mirror
Voss brings up the idea of mirroring, or imitation, as a way of creating comfort and a deeper bond with the person with whom you are interacting. As humans, we are drawn to what is familiar, and this important tool can come in handy when negotiating to help establish rapport and eventually trust. Mirroring is the simple (yet sometimes strange-feeling) practice of repeating the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone just said. When you repeat back those crucial few words, you are essentially signaling your counterpart to elaborate on or reword their initial response, which usually comes out differently the second time. An example where mirroring can be useful is when negotiating the budget for PR services or digital marketing, something our digital team does quite often. Here’s how mirroring can be used in that instance:
“My rate for an Instagram post and story is $5k.”
“A post and story for $5k?” (pause)
“Yes, I realize that might be too high for this project, so I’m willing to go down to $4k.
“Down to $4k?”
And so on. It is important to take meaningful pauses and know when to stop mirroring as well.
Label the emotion
Labeling is the act of calling out your counterpart’s feelings to show understanding and empathy. It is a proven and effective way to show that you are really listening and trying to form a connection. The examples Voss points out are It seems like, It sounds like, It looks like followed by “you,” which shows that you’ve been attentive towards your counterpart’s emotions and can signal calmness and trust. An example of where we can use labeling at a PR agency is in our media pitches, for instance: “Based on your recent article about seeking comfort food during uncertain times, it seems like you would be interested in a story about a delicious, restaurant-worthy Indian food brand that is truly the epitome of easy at-home comfort.” You know the person you are talking to enjoys food and that during this time of uncertainty your client’s products will help provide comfort to him/her and readers.
The accusation audit can work wonders during a conversation when things aren’t going as planned. It is the act of clearing out any negative emotions that might get in the way of making a deal. By listing out all the possible negative things the other side might be thinking about you, you jump the gun and do it for them instead. In the PR and digital marketing world, the accusation audit can come into play when clients decide to leave, journalists and influencers become unresponsive or you need an edit on a story or post. A quick example: “You probably think this is annoying, but would you be able to update my client’s retailer availability in your story?”
Often, when we hear the word “no” the conversation ends and the connection dissolves in one way or another. “No” is associated with rejection, a decision that can’t be changed or influenced, but with “no” the exact opposite is true. Voss explains that “no” is actually a great way to continue the conversation and is a reply that should be embraced rather than dreaded. To train your mind to think about “no” as something other than rejection, you can reframe how you perceive it. For example, “no” can mean “I need more information” or “I don’t think I can afford it.” By taking that information and applying it to a solution-based approach – “What additional information can I share with you today?” “no” helps bring out what’s really at stake, what’s needed to get to a final “yes.”
When a reporter or a prospective new client starts to “ghost” you, try asking them a question that provokes a “no” response. A no-oriented question usually does better than a yes-oriented question “because it plays on your counterpart’s human aversion to loss.” For instance, if a media or influencer contact confirms including about your client in an upcoming story and post but then the communication between the two of you completely stops, try asking them a no-oriented question like “Have you moved on from this story?” or “Have you changed your mind about [xx]?” Remember, hearing “no” is a good way to start a conversation about what each of you really wants and how you’ll get it.
For a more extensive and deeper dive into negotiating, read Voss’ book, Never Split the Difference.