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Observations of a Negotiation Judge

Ben Byth

I was honoured to have recently been invited to judge Queensland University of Technology’s Business School Negotiation Competition. After watching the participants negotiate their way through 4 rounds, there were a few themes which I observed across the group.


Negotiating is new to them

It is interesting, though not a complete surprise, to notice that most have only been recently introduced to negotiating as a being a skill and strategy for resolving difference and conflict. As parents and teachers, we are far more comfortable trying to convince our children that when we are confronted with conflict we should either impose our will or surrender or we occasionally problem solve… and as a result we saw far more of these strategies relied on than negotiating behaviour. As someone who negotiates for a living, it’s my goal to try and model and teach my kids to be flexible with their strategies, although I know it won’t be easy!


Something which stood out in relation to this is that there was still a high level of discomfort around making concessions. Rather than denying the other party what they want, negotiating is a process of identifying what the other party wants and trading it to them to get what you want… therefore negotiation can’t take place without conceding something! As such, the mark of a good negotiator is that they are flexible, they are interested in the other party’s positions and use that understanding to put forward trades. Only by understanding this nature of trading interests, will you truly be able to surface and wield your negotiating power!


It is complicated before it begins

The briefs given to the participants were quite long, complex and contained lots of information – some of which was nice to know but irrelevant to the issue to be resolved… very nicely reflecting the world we live in and scenarios which commercial negotiators are often faced with. Our brains aren’t wired to deal with this kind of cumbersome information very well and the students (and in fact anyone who is negotiating) would really benefit from following a simple process for distilling the information into objectives and possible strategies.


For example, one of the briefs was about 6 pages describing an opportunity for a resources company to lay a pipeline through a local community, against an imminent start date and a backdrop of distrust and grievances. I’d start high level and break it down:


  1. What am I trying to achieve in a sentence (not a paragraph)?
    1. Gain access to start construction in 2 months and run a profitable pipeline
  2. What are the negotiating variables and intend/limit positions?
    1. Upfront payment for the rights. Intend $50k, Limit $100k
    2. Annual payment. Intend $20K, Limit $60k
    3. Intend today, limit today
    4. Local employment. Intend 15%
  3. What are my different options for achieving it?
    1. I could ask them what they want … that won’t go well for me!
    2. I could wait and see if the rights come in the mail … unlikely!
    3. I could propose what I want … best chance of getting what I need


It is still complicated half-way through

The same thread of simplicity applies during the negotiating when their strategy stops working. When someone said “no” to a proposal, what I observed as a judge was reiteration of lengthy persuasion (that nobody listened to) and throwing concessions (that didn’t satisfy the problem)…This is a common fall back in real life commercial negotiations also! My advice here is to instead keep it simple and ask – ‘why don’t you like my proposal?’


We get better by learning

This is where it gets difficult because it isn’t easy to get objective and valid feedback on our negotiations because very few of us have a competent negotiating coach following us around as these students do. So instead we need to implement our own learning loops and take the time to honestly review and reflect. A simple model we use is PODEL and is useful at any point during a negotiation when you run into a barrier:


  1. What is the PROBLEM. This could be that my proposal was rejected or that someone made a demand of me.
  2. What are my OPTIONS. If they made a demand of me, I could concede, ignore, compromise, persuade, negotiate, etc.
  3. Pick an option and DO IT.
  4. Then we need to EVALUATE how it went. Did we do what we said we would? Did they respond how we expected them to when we brought power to the table? Why not? Etc
  5. After evaluation we can refine by What worked?, what didn’t?, what did we surface about that individual’s interests and constraints/flexibilities?, etc


Congratulations to all of the students who participated in the competition and QUT for hosting the competition – a great learning opportunity not only for them but also for the rest of us to be able to pause and reflect on how we can also improve our negotiation approach and our process!


Happy negotiating!

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