The Negotiator Magazine

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People in their work environment are always surrounded by invisible chains of protocol-what they feel they should be talking about and what they feel they shouldn't. That applies to an executive in her office, it applies to a salesperson on a sales call, and it applies to a plumber fixing a pipe in your basement. When people are in their work environments, they're cautious about sharing information.

Get them away from their work environments and information flows much more freely. And it doesn't take much. Sometimes all that it takes is to get that vice-president down the hall to his company lunchroom for a cup of coffee. Often that's all it takes to relax the tensions of the negotiation and get information flowing. And if you meet for lunch at your country club, surrounded by your trappings of power and authority, where he's psychologically obligated to you because you're buying the lunch, then that's even better.

Rule Five: Ask other people-not the person with whom you will negotiate

If you go into a negotiation knowing only what the other side has chosen to tell you, you are very vulnerable. Others will tell you things that the other side won't, and they will also be able to verify what the other side has told you.

Start by asking people who've done business with the other side already. I think it will amaze you-even if you thought of them as competition-how much they're willing to share with you. Be prepared to horse trade information. Don't reveal anything that you don't want them to know, but the easiest way to get people to open up is to offer information in return. People who have done business with the other side can be especially helpful in revealing the character of the people with whom you'll be negotiating. Can you trust them? Do they bluff a great deal in negotiations or are they straightforward in their dealings? Will they stand behind their verbal agreements or do you need an attorney to read the fine print in the contracts?

Next, ask people further down the corporate ladder than the person with whom you plan to deal. Let's say you're going to be negotiating with someone at the main office of a nationwide retail chain. You might call up one of the branch offices and get an appointment to stop by and see the local manager. Do some preliminary negotiating with that person. He will tell you a lot, even though he can't negotiate the deal, about how the company makes a decision, why one supplier is accepted over another, the specification factors considered, the profit margins expected, the way the company normally pays, and so on. Be sure that you're "reading between the lines" in that kind of conversation. Without you knowing it, the negotiations may have already begun. For example, the Branch Manager may tell you, "They never work with less than a 40 percent markup," when that may not be the case at all. And never tell the Branch Manager anything you wouldn't say to the people at his head office. Take the precaution of assuming anything you say will get back to them.

Next, take advantage of peer-group sharing. This refers to the fact that people have a natural tendency to share information with their peers. At a cocktail party, you'll find attorneys talking about their cases to other attorneys, when they wouldn't consider it ethical to share that information with anyone outside their industry. Doctors will talk about their patients to other doctors, but not outside their profession.

Power Negotiators know how to use this phenomenon because it applies to all occupations, not just in the professions. Engineers, controllers, foremen, and truck drivers; all have allegiances to their occupations, as well as their employers. Put them together with each other and information will flow that you couldn't get any other way.

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