While there are a thousand things you can do to improve your negotiation outcomes, one single undertaking stands out above the rest. As anyone who teaches, coaches, or practices negotiation will tell you, preparation is the key to better results.
In approaching any important negotiation, you should acknowledge that the outcome matters to you. This means, among other things, taking preparation seriously. Prepare as would an actor before a big performance, or an athlete before an Olympic match, or a lawyer before a major trial. Preparation is something within your reach that can directly improve results. It is there for the taking. Take it. Do your homework.
How does one best go about preparing? You probably need a framework that will break down the negotiation process into smaller parts. Pick up any good book on negotiation and it will offer you as much. For jest a few examples, in recent years I have assigned Getting to Yes , Bargaining for Advantage, Negotiating Rationally , beyond reason , and Everyday Negotiation . Learn the structure and start laying out the individual pieces of it.
Preparation involves learning, thinking, planning, anticipating, and creating alternatives. These are all things best begun well in advance of sitting down with the other side. Start gathering information. As you do so, create lists of what other data you now realize you would like. Among the topics to be explored are what you really wish to achieve, how you could best do it, what would be fair in your eyes, what kind of relationships you are trying to build, how you are communicating, and what possibilities are available to you besides this deal. Then turn the whole question around and gather all that information for each other person or organization in the negotiation. (By the way, if you are bargaining with a person who represents an organization, you will be gathering this kind of information about both the individual and the group.)
Good negotiation teachers make a big deal of the fact that preparation begins long before you start interacting with the other parties. On the other hand, it does not stop –or even slow down- once you sit down at the table with them. To the contrary, the period when you start communicating directly is best thought of as a time of intense information gathering. You are finally chatting with an expert on so much of what you have wanted to know – take full advantage of it. You should have a thousand questions to ask of your negotiating partners (previously thought of as ‘the other side”) and want to do everything possible to get them to provide answers.
How much preparation should you do? Far more than you initially thought. Being totally ready and knowing the answers to most of your initial questions will be worth a create deal to you. Anticipating the moves and motivations of your partners is likewise invaluable. Knowing what you will do if this deal falls through is the essence of negotiation power.
The big problem with being fully prepared involves not knowing how much work is adequate. It reminds me of a young lawyer who could not figure out when his legal research was sufficient. He pored over books of cases and interpretation but still wondered if one more treatise might have uncovered the critically important precedent. So, too, the negotiator may question whether she has learned and anticipated all that may be useful. The desire for assurance that we have done adequate preparation can be as strong as it is difficult to come by.
Here is a suggestion. The amount of preparation work should be directly proportional to how important the negotiation is to you. If you care little about the outcome, a small amount of prep work should be sufficient. If the deal in question feels like the biggest of your life, the depth and breadth of your preparation should reflect that. Most of the negotiations that life throws your way, however, will be somewhere in between. For those, your preparedness should reflect how badly you will feel if you do a lousy job. Remember though, as with all things in life, noting breeds success quite like doing your homework. If you care deeply about the quality of your results, jump up and get to work.