Three Best Practices to Minimize Ambiguity at the Bargaining Table

contract-408216_1920If you could grant yourself one wish that would help you feel more confident at your next negotiation what would you grant yourself? Would you want to know if you are leaving money on the table? Would you want to know what the other person really wants from your company? Would you want a way to get behind those poker faces people adopt when negotiating important deals?

In a 2005 survey of 35 small to medium sized businesses, all respondents reported wanting to uncover what their counterpart was really thinking, wanting and willing to pay or receive in exchange for working with them. Ambiguity is the devil we know in the negotiation process. Many negotiators are ambiguous in their thought processes, so it should come as no surprise that many people struggle with uncertainty at that bargaining table.

Ambiguity comes in many forms from posturing, to pretending to want one thing when in fact you want something else, to vague statements and promises. All negotiators, whether savvy or neophyte, fall into the ambiguity trap. A study done by Professor Lee Thompson found that 50% of skilled negotiators failed to uncover and meet the other parties’ needs. There were two reasons: First, the other side was bluffing. Second, and much more troubling, the other party did not know what it really wanted from the process.

There are three best practices to use when ambiguity is an issue at the bargaining table. These tactics will increase your certainty that you are talking about what really matters to you and to your counterpart.

Best Practice 1: Ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions seek to flush out facts and your counterpart’s perception of the facts. The best clarifying questions are those that are open ended. Ask clarifying questions as an immediate follow up on a statement the other person just made. Digging deeply into the other person’s mindset is essential to getting the deal that you want. Roy Robinson, CEO of Aviation Technologies Inc, the holding company to Avtech, believes that, “really trying to understand what’s behind a person’s negotiation position across the table is more productive than anything else.”

Best Practice 2: Demand and define reciprocity. Too often negotiators assume that once they make a concession the other person will likewise make a concession. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way. To begin with, your counterpart may not recognize that you are making a concession. It is even more likely, however, that your counterpart does not know what to offer you in return. Therefore, use “if­then” statements to make trade-offs. After learning of this technique, R. Brad Lawrence, president of ITG, Esterline Corporation, instructed his direct reports to use this method to “make trade-offs, not concessions.”

Best Practice 3: Carefully structure counteroffers. Skilled negotiators structure counteroffers to reflect the fact that they have considered their counterpart’s needs, wants or concerns. Stated in another way, when making your counteroffer, explicitly tell the other person that your counteroffer addresses either their concerns, their needs or their wants in a specific way. People respond very favorably to counteroffers that explicitly address their needs or concerns.

Negotiators agree ­­in theory that they prefer to have some level of clarity in their conversations with their counterparts. The problem is that negotiating with a measure of openness can mean different things to different people. Because ambiguity is ever present at the bargaining table, make a concerted effort to employ these three tools. By asking clarifying questions, demanding and defining trade-offs and explicitly stating how your counteroffers meet your counterparts’ needs, you will create an atmosphere of certainty and clarity. As a direct result of your conversations becoming more refined and more focused, you will expend less effort and time to reach an agreement.

Ambiguity may be the devil negotiators know, but it does not have to dominate your bargaining sessions. These tools will help you refine your counterparts thinking, while also further defining your needs and trade-offs.