13 Apr 2023
by Nathaniel Elcock

The overlooked art of negotiation

Being a better negotiator can have a tangible impact on your professional success. Nathaniel Elcock encourages us to consider the art of negotiation as a worthy candidate for CPD. 

I often find myself in difficult negotiations. One particular counterpart pushes me hard for a good deal, shows himself more than willing to walk away if my offer isn’t acceptable to him and kicks off big time if I try to stand my ground. I feel like I’m in a lose-lose situation. For sure, my three-year-old son is a tough negotiator!

Regardless of the context of a negotiation (personal or professional), I am typically conflict-averse, and prefer not to be the clichéd ‘tough guy’. So, I thought I’d take a step out of my comfort zone and sign up for “Negotiation Mastery” at Harvard Business School Online. It’s an eight-week course with about seven hours of work expected per week. (It also has a course fee stretching into four figures!)

The course is built around four negotiation simulations with fellow course attendees. These simulations are then analysed, and areas for improvement identified. For the rest of the course, theory and case studies blend to provide engaging, high-quality training. I was not disappointed.

Now, I can’t possibly do justice here to all the tips and tricks which were covered, but here is a non-exhaustive list of things I took away:

  • It is normal to feel nervous – be OK with that.
  • Right from the start, go out of your way to put your negotiation counterpart at ease. They are quite possibly feeling as nervous as you are! This often pays off further down the line.
  • Be ready to quickly adapt your approach. If your counterpart reciprocates goodwill, a collaborative approach is probably the way forward. If they play ‘hardball’, it may be time to toughen up your own approach.
  • Don’t go into a negotiation before considering your BATNA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It may be that there is a good outcome for you even if negotiation breaks down, in which case you are in a strong position. For example, you’ve already been made a generous initial offer for a project; if further negotiation fails, it doesn’t really matter to you.
  • You should also consider your counterpart’s BATNA so you have a good understanding of where they are coming from.
  • Conventional wisdom says, “be the first to make an offer”, but this isn’t necessarily in your interests. Consider the ZOPA – the Zone of Possible Agreement (sometimes called the “bargaining range”). In other words, what is the lower and upper limit (often price)? If you have a pretty good idea of the ZOPA, it may be to your advantage to get the first offer in. But if you don’t know the ZOPA, watch out! Go in too low, and you shoot yourself in the foot; go in too high, and you could come across as unreasonable and opportunistic – thus priming your counterpart to play difficult.
  • Don’t hesitate to push the ‘pause’ button if you need some time to regroup or you hit an impasse. Leave the room, get some fresh air, confer with colleagues.
  • Be very sensitive to cultural differences – they can derail a negotiation. Language professionals ought to be good at this already!

So, why is all this useful for translators, interpreters and other language professionals? Well, I can immediately think of some example scenarios we may find ourselves in:

  • Resolving a dispute over a project. Having a framework within which to structure the negotiation can make life a lot easier.
  • Negotiating rates or terms. I have often been treated with cold suspicion by freelancers I have sought to engage as subcontractors. I understand the reasons why, but freelancers can carelessly misread such situations, and lose out in the longer term.
  • Interpreting during a tense business meeting which is, in essence, a negotiation. You can see how a better knowledge of the negotiation process could help you perform better as an interpreter.

Being a better negotiator can have a tangible impact on your professional success – and your stress levels in the process. But I would venture to suggest that good negotiation skills are just generally very useful. Life can be seen as a series of negotiations from the trivial (maybe you have your own three-year-old!) to the significant (buying a house or resolving some legal dispute). Why not consider doing some CPD in this area which is often overlooked?

As for me, now I know my ZOPAs from my BATNAs, I think I’m ready to take the game to my three-year-old son. I have a niggling sense, however, that I’m still going to lose…