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Guide to Negotiation: Don’t Lose when You Can Win

Guide to Negotiation

A large part of Project Management is negotiation. The need to negotiate is not negotiable. Whether you are negotiating for resources, settling scope, or trying to agree a compromise with a stakeholder, it’s a skill you’ll need, if you want to be successful.

But the prominence and practices of negotiation vary widely from culture to culture. In the Arabic souk, or in the north of the Indian subcontinent, it is more than a way of life, it is a ritual to be savored. Everyone is familiar with its ploys and gambits, and is comfortable with the give and take, the spirited competition, and the feigned offense. Not negotiating is what gives real offense.

In other cultures, the idea of negotiating to settle the price of that next consumer purchase is alien to us. And we don’t think of haggling over whether to eat at the Italian, Indian, North African, or Chinese restaurant as a negotiation: it feels more like an argument. So, not every Project Manager feels comfortable with the idea of negotiating.

So, how can you negotiate well, and feel confident at the same time?

The good news is that negotiation is a learnable process. Once you assimilate the four basic steps, you can practice each, carrying them out diligently, and you will get a result every time. Note, that it won’t always be the result you hoped for at the outset: that’s not the goal of negotiating. There are, after all, two (or more) parties to please.

What is Negotiation?

Put very simply…

Negotiation is a process of searching for an agreement that satisfies all parties.

It’s kind of like Conflict, with rules and a respectful attitude.

So, let’s look at the process; it has four steps:

  1. Preparation
  2. Opening
  3. Bargaining
  4. Closing
Guide to Negotiation
Guide to Negotiation

We’ll focus on each one in turn.


The secret of success lies in going into the formal ‘let’s negotiate’ part fully prepared. This can give you an immediate edge but, realistically, will simply prevent you from being at a disadvantage from the start. Its real importance is two-fold:

  1. to boost your confidence and to equip you to recognise and secure the best outcome available… or
  2. to know when to walk away. Perhaps the simplest useful advice is in the words of Kenny Rogers:

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

So, what to prepare?

First and foremost, know what you want. And second, determine what your best option would be if you failed to reach an agreement. This is known as your BATNA, or your ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’. This tells you when to walk away. If you reach a stage in the negotiation where the deal on offer is worse than your BATNA, stop negotiating. It forms your bottom line.

You also need to inventory all the variables in your negotiation: what you can trade, offer, concede, request, and tweak, in terms of money, goods, services, or relationships. This will give you an understanding of your maneuvering space.

Next, find out what you can about the other party and do your best to anticipate what they need, want, and don’t want. As a result, develop some likely scenarios. Then play them out with alternative strategies. This kind of preparation increases your chances of knowing how to act for the best, as your negotiation progresses.

Lastly assemble a file of every relevant fact or figure so you have them to hand. Ideally, learn it all – the impact of that on your counter-party can be stunning. If not, at least be familiar with it all, so you can quickly find what you need.


The opening is a dance. So, like a debutante, your first priority is to make a positive first impression. Dress right, enter confidently, and get your papers out to reveal an orderly file, smart notebook, and classy pen. Show you are confident and mean business.

Don’t neglect rapport-building banter. A few minutes of this recognizes that all negotiation is a human activity. It’s harder to be hard with someone you have a rapport with, so soften up the other side.

Next, establish any ground rules – above all, does the person in the room have the authority to seal the deal? If not, you will never want to make your best offer to them. If you do, they will still have to take that back to the person who does have authority. And that will give them leverage over you.

Finally, the opening bars are over and the main bit of the dance starts…

Who do you want to state their position first?

There are two different circumstances. And each one gives a different answer.

  1. If you are expecting to negotiate around a shared understanding of the main parameters. This will usually be the case. Here, try to let the other party speak first, so you can respond to their position and thus control the first exchange.
  2. If, however, your position would surprise them with its audacity, speak first. Speak confidently with a prepared statement, and then stop: shut up. You have re-frames the negotiation.This is called setting an anchor. Now they must respond to your position.
4-Step Negotiation Process
4-Step Negotiation Process


Now the ball is in full swing. The give and take of the negotiation are underway.

The secret here is to:

  • listen hard
  • never respond immediately
  • not be defensive

Always move one step towards where you think agreement lies. This means either accepting a concession, making one, requesting one, or spelling out the next step. Anything else shows you to be focused on the wrong thing. The right thing is the big picture: progress towards an agreement that satisfies all parties.

Let any raising of emotional temperature, defensive behavior or outrage come from the other side of the table. You will look wiser, more confident, and more powerful. This is why we prepare.

There are lots of useful tips and tricks in the last section of the article.


Eventually, you will either reach a point of agreement where both of you are happy, or you will reach a point where one of you recognises that no such agreement is possible and offers to walk away – or storms out; but don’t ever let that be you.

This is where weak, inexperienced, nervous negotiators stumble and fall. They fear that saying they are happy and checking that the other party is too, will break the magic spell. The opposite is true. Failing to declare this point will mean the magic will wear off. So, screw up your courage and go for a close. The simplest and safest approach is a trial close:

I think we are at a point where we can both agree? Is that how you see it?

If you get the right signals, express your pleasure and move straight into the formalities of finalizing the detail: handshakes, drafting, signatures, and logistics.

Never, ever re-visit any of the terms. You have a deal, so both of you are happy. Re-opening any part of the discussion can do nothing but make one of you doubt what you have.  There is nothing better than having an agreement, so the only thing that will happen is that it gets worse. Stop.

Tips and Tricks to Help you Negotiate

Now we have seen a simple four-step process for negotiation, I’d like to offer you ten of my best tips to help you make the best of that process.

  1. Know what your ideal outcome is; and ask for it.
    ‘If you don’t ask; you don’t get’ my father told me. And it’s true. Too many negotiators are fearful of stating their ‘perfect’ deal. So they start from something less, and therefore have no chance of achieving what they really want.
  2. Cultivate the art of listening with ferocious attention, waiting before you speak and shutting up when you have spoken. The last is most important: nothing is worse than over-speaking and hearing yourself arguing against your own point.
    Listening to others and maintaining a silence when they stop speaking, so you can think about your response is one of the most valuable skills for a negotiator.
  3. Take your time. There are cultural limits to this, but if it is worth negotiating, it is worth getting right.
    Take your time over preparation, over the opening ceremony, and over bargaining. Then close with alacrity.
  4. Focus on the WAM factor – the ‘What about me?’ that your counter-party is thinking of.
    Ask yourself about their wants and needs, drivers and pains. If you can help them satisfy these, then you’ll be offering the basis of an agreement.
  5. … and then show how you can address them.
    If you do this, success will be yours. The best negotiated outcomes arise when the cost to you of meeting the other party’s WAM factor is less than its value to them. This means they will be able to grant you more in return.

Can it be that simple?

Yes and no.

Yes, this simple process works and is the basis of all negotiation. Just four steps, followed with care.

No, because every negotiation will be different and there is one fundamental characteristic of all negotiations that militates against simplicity: they are a human endeavor. But, if well prepared, you are in the same position as the other party. You are a human; so are they. Think of it as a game in which you are both trying to win as much as you can. But, if you don’t win, you can always walk away with your best alternative to a negotiated agreement; your BATNA.

What is your experience of Project Negotiation?

We’d love to hear your experiences and your tips.

Please share them in the comments section below and we’ll respond to every contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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