The key to successful negotiation is to listen.

A recent post from fellow Birthing of Giants Board of Experts member, Vanessa Nornberg, reminded me of a four year old post from my Inc. magazine column. At the time I was involved in several negotiations, and noticed a big negotiation fail that my colleagues were committing – a lesson that I had learned many years ago, pretty much the hard way.

“Their most common mistake [people make] is focusing on what they want when they should be devoting their attention to learning what the other side wants, and how badly. If you can do that without showing your hand, you wind up controlling the process. You can craft a deal that satisfies the other side while getting what’s most important to you.”

In other words, people don’t listen enough. As an example I used a negotiation that I went through to obtain a short term lease on a storage space. My company was building a new, bigger warehouse to hold our clients’ storable goods, but construction wouldn’t be done for six months. I needed additional space now. My broker found a suitable space, but the landlord was asking for a larger price than I wanted to pay and a minimum five year lease. I kept my short term lease needs to myself, and countered on a lower price. The landlord counter-offered, emphasizing that he wouldn’t go any lower. We came to the negotiating table at that point.

“The initial meeting of the principals is crucial in any negotiation. Most people screw it up by thinking they already know the other side’s position, and so they don’t listen carefully to what their counterpart has to say.”

They just focus and immediately argue for what THEY want. But it’s a trap of your own making, and it’s exactly what the landlord did. He immediately began the meeting talking about price, and that he simply would not come down any lower. This was clearly what was important to him. What he didn’t know was that I was fine with his price. It was the lease length that was the sticking point for me.

“I avoid that pitfall by following my first rule of face-to-face negotiations: No preconceptions. Regardless of what has happened before, I assume I know nothing about what the other side wants.”

The landlord assumed that price was my biggest problem with closing the deal, since I had counter-offered on his initial price. If he had taken time to listen, he might have realized where my weakness truly lay. I told him that I could live with the price if he gave me a flexible lease. He agreed, and we hashed out a deal that gave me the short term lease I was looking for at a lower price than the initial asking.

“Although it was a fair deal, the landlord could have done better. He should have forced me to talk first. If he’d listened closely and asked questions, he would have soon realized the pressure I was under to find additional space.”

You can read my article in its original form at Inc. Magazine’s website.