Knowing someone’s interests can unlock negotiations in ways you never thought possible.
“Agree to 20 percent less and we have a deal,” said the university dean. She and I were negotiating my fee for a long-term training contract for her division.
“Well, you see,” I explained patiently, “I don’t arbitrarily inflate my fee in order to play a negotiation game. If my fee is too steep for your budget, then let’s discuss ways to revise the project so it fits your parameters. I’m sure we can find what works for both of us.”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t want to change the scope of the project. I just want to pay you 20 percent less than you’re proposing.”
And so we went, back and forth, me trying to explain that I don’t inflate fees, her trying to explain that she wasn’t willing to pay my full fee. It was like a polite tug of war. This was was one of the first big contracts in my new private practice 15 years ago. I certainly didn’t want to lose the contract but 20 percent was a very big chunk of change to cut out.
Finally, I did what I should have done at the very beginning: I stopped trying to persuade and started being curious. “Why 20 percent?” I asked.
“Because that’s what the VP for Finance is going to expect I got out of you.”
Well, I certainly hadn’t anticipated that response. “You mean you’re trying to satisfy a demand the CFO makes of you? That the dollar amount per se doesn’t matter?” I was incredulous.
“That’s right,” she replied, shrugging. “I’ve got the money already budgeted. But when I send this contract down for his final approval, he’s going to ask me if I talked you down.”
I did some quick math in my head. “I have a solution,” I said, reaching for the contract. “I’ll re-do the contract and increase my fee to this amount,” I said, pointing to the new figure I’d written in.
She smiled. “And when I take 20% off that figure, we’ll have the amount you came in with today, right?”
“Perfect!” she said. “Email the revised contract to me and I’ll cross out the amount, lower it by 20% and initial the revised amount, then send it on to the VP for his signature.”
I tell this story to my negotiation grad students and they never believe me. Frankly, it is such a crazy story I can scarcely believe it happened that way myself. But it did.
When negotiations get stuck, stop trying to convince and start trying to understand. You never know what will happen.