Four ways to improve your negotiation skills in the public sector

If you have encountered cross-sector collaboration problems perhaps it’s time to sharpen your negotiation skills.

By Sandra Naranjo Bautista

If you have encountered cross-sector collaboration problems perhaps it’s time to sharpen your negotiation skills. This blog gives you four practical ways to improve your negotiation skills, including one that most people miss.

At first, when I thought about negotiations, I would imagine a formal discussion at a country level. With time I’ve discovered, we are involved in ‘negotiations’ all the time. From deciding what to have for dinner, to buying a house, negotiating your salary or a work offer, or getting the budget approval for a project. Obviously, the issues at stake are much different, but mastering some of these negotiation principles will help you be more effective at work, and in life.


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First, let’s talk about the three dimensions of a negotiation

There are three dimensions of a negotiation. The first is tactics, which focuses on the processes. The second is deal design focused on the substance. When people talk about negotiations, they generally focus on the first two dimensions. Great negotiators, add a third dimension, the one that is often missed, the setup. Let’s have a look to each of them. 

Four ways to improve your negotiation skills in the public sector
Source:  Harvard Business Review. 3-D Negotiation: Playing the Whole Game

1. Prepare away from the table 

The setup of a negotiation happens away from the table. In this step you ensure that the right parties have been involved, in the right sequence, to deal with the right issues, that engage the right set of interests, at the right table or tables, at the right time, under the right expectations, facing the right consequences of walking away. As my negotiation Professor used to say,

Never accept the game as given.  

Brian Mandell

Start by mapping the table. Identify the key stakeholders and their interests. You also need to identify their best no-deal options, also known as BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiation Agreement), as well as yours. The goal of negotiation agreement is to reach a deal that leaves you better off than your BATNA. The stronger your BATNA, the stronger your position is (More on BATNAS here). 

If your negotiation position is weak, you can strengthen it by adding parties or issues to the table. An alternative is to make a BATNA less attractive. 

Be mindful of the importance of sequencing. The order in which each of the parties engages also affects the outcome.

2. Find deals at the drawing board

This dimension of the negotiation focuses on the deal design and lasting value creation. Instead of focusing only on getting a bigger share of the pie, think about how to make a bigger pie for everyone. In other words, creating more value, for both parties, as part of the negotiation.

You can do that with an investigator mindset. 

Think about the other party’s negotiation problem, their incentives, constraints, and risks. Try to understand more about them, ask questions. You want to know what’s valuable to them. It’s important to highlight that value is not always economic, it can be noneconomic too. Consider those as part of your negotiation strategy. Remember,

Negotiation is the art of letting them have it your way. 

Chris Voss

A negotiation is not a gamble, it’s a carefully designed strategy focused on value creation. One of the things I learned about negotiation is that preparation is power. If you want to maximize opportunities and minimize threats you need to understand the game. You are simultaneously managing substance, process and relationships. 

3. Improve your interpersonal skills at the table 

When people talk about negotiation, this is the first thing that comes to mind. The tactics and interpersonal skills at the negotiation table. 

While preparation is essential, another skill required in a negotiation is adaptability. Knowing that the game can change. Having the ability to notice those changes and adjust accordingly is fundamental to staying on top of a negotiation. 

If we commit to a strategy rather than a goal, we lose. 

Try to separate emotions and personality from the issues at stake. Keep things in perspective, and make sure to manage your emotions before they manage you. One way to think about it is by distancing ourselves from the negotiation and maintaining personal discipline. Being able to zoom in and zoom out at the moment.

4. Avoid these three common negotiating mistakes

I recommend watching this short video from James Sebenius, Professor at the Harvard Business School, where he talks about three common negotiating mistakes. This is a summary:

  1. Focusing on positions, not interests. 
  2. Narrow sightedness. Focusing on tactics and interpersonal issues without considering the broader game: issues, parties and interests. The 3-D dimensions of negotiation. 
  3. Forgetting the purpose. The goal of a negotiation agreement is to reach a deal that leaves you better off than your BATNA, or strengthens your BATNA.

Negotiation skills should be part of any public servant’s toolkit 

The three dimensions of negotiation apply in public policy too. We need to invest time doing the setup work and preparing the scope and sequence of our work. Then we have to focus on the substance, creating and claiming value. And, we have to be aware of our tactics, the processes we use, and our interpersonal skills. Finally, think about the common negotiating mistakes we discussed, because the principles apply in our daily lives too.

*Sandra Naranjo Bautista created Better Govs, for public servants and development practitioners. Better Govs is a global platform to share ideas, tools, and resources for effective policy implementation.

*This article first appeared on the bettergovs.org website

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