Meeting around a conference table

Where there are differences, there will be a need for negotiations in order to come to some kind of an agreement. Negotiations are constantly happening in our everyday life: negotiations to resolve conflict, negotiations to get a better deal, negotiations for self-preservation. In the latest issue of English Teaching professional (Issue 111), I put forward the suggestion that the teaching of negotiation skills should not just be reserved for the Business English class, but should be a life skill that we teach all of our students.

Going beyond the negotiation stock phrases in Business English course books, what are some of the skills a good negotiator needs? How can we help our students become better at negotiating?

Here are my top three tips to being a good negotiator. Each of these skills can be developed and nurtured through practice, discussion, reflection and a good dose of self-awareness.


1. Understand that you could have a win-win situation

A common misunderstanding is that negotiations are always about power play and trying to get a one up on someone. People often see negotiations as a game where there would be a winner and a loser - if you aim to win, then you need to gain an advantage over someone, and if you can’t, then you need to back down and compromise.

This is a one-dimensional way of looking at conflict, but if we take the time to explore deeper, we sometimes realize that this isn’t always the case.

In the story of the ‘Orange Quarrel’ adapted from Fisher and Ury’s (1981) powerful book on negotiation, Jenny and Joey quarreled over an orange because they both wanted it. After some exploration, we find out that Jenny wanted the orange peel because the cake recipe she was following required the peels of exactly one orange. On the other hand, Joey wanted to eat the orange but always throws the peels away. By giving Jenny all the peels and Joey all the fruit, both of them achieves 100% satisfaction, ensuring that they both ‘win’.

This approach to negotiation, known as Principled Negotiation aka the Harvard Approach (Fisher and Ury, 1981) suggests that one party does not have to lose in order for the other to gain. Instead, get to know your negotiating partner’s interests and the motivations that drive them as this can help you generate ideas and options so as to resolve the differences. Separate the people and the emotions from the problem, and you might find ways of cooperating and collaborating on the issue at hand.

Customers buying a camera

2. Prepare before you negotiate (when possible)

Before entering a negotiation, ask yourself these questions:

  - What is your goal and what are your motivations?

Is your goal to get a satisfactory deal at the risk of damaging the relationship between you and your negotiating partner? Or are you motivated to cultivate and maintain a goodwill for the future? If that is the case, would your goal be to collaborate and seek an outcome in which everyone comes out satisfied?

This could very well depend on the situation you are in.

Let’s consider this example.

You are at an electronics store buying yourself a new camera. Your main concern might be to get the best price for the model you want, and you might see value in pestering the shop assistant (and perhaps annoying him/her) for a better deal. You might even threaten to go to the electronics shop next door if he doesn’t budge on the price. In this situation, offering you a lower price on the camera might mean a cut in commission for the shop assistant, and such a win-lose situation is known as zero sum game. How would you then proceed?

  - What is your best case outcome?
e.g. getting the camera for £500 instead of £650.

  - What is an acceptable outcome for you?
e.g. getting the camera for £580.

  - At what point does it tip into being unacceptable?
e.g. the shop assistant refuses to go any lower than £610.

  - What alternatives do you have?
e.g. actually getting the camera from a different store. This is often referred to as BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). The better your BATNA, the stronger you will be. e.g. knowing that you can buy the camera online for £580 and there are many electronic stores in the area carrying the same product.

However, be wary of waving your BATNA about in your negotiation as it might end up damaging your relationship. This might not be an issue if you don’t intend on visiting this store ever again, but if this is the only electronics store in town and is where you get all your other electronics, then you might want to consider other alternatives that would be easier for the shop assistant to agree to, e.g. offering to pay by cash instead of a credit card if he gives you another 3% off the price or asking him to throw in some free items like a camera bag instead of lowering the price further.

 Friends arguing at a coffee shop

3. Cultivate interpersonal skills

We are born to be social beings and many of us already have a certain degree of social skills that enable us to connect with others.

Interpersonal skills refer the ability to communicate, interact positively and work effectively with others, and this is what most of us are teaching our students to do in English.

But what does good interpersonal skills actually entail?

  • Clear & effective verbal communication
  • Active listening skills – which includes effective questioning skills
  • High EQ (emotional quotient) - ability to understand your own emotions and the emotions of others, and ability to understand how emotions affect behaviour. This enables better management of your emotions and behaviour, even in stressful situations.
  • Awareness of one’s own communication style
  • Ability to build rapport
  • Ability to collaborate and work in a team
  • Flexibility and ability to adapt and accommodate
  • Ability to take on feedback
  • Ability to reflect

Couple shaking hands with financial agent

A friend recently told me a story about how he and his family were on a flight that was overbooked. At the boarding gate, there was a disgruntled couple who clearly had also been refused boarding and were arguing aggressively with the airline staff. They were eventually turned away with a £5 voucher for refreshments and told to wait for the next flight.

When it came to my friend’s turn, he spoke politely to the staff, expressing his family’s need to get on the plane in a firm but respectful manner, skillfully managing his emotions and the situation. The staff apologized to him and his family and offered them vouchers to the business class lounge where they could wait for the next flight in comfort with a free flow of food and drink.

At the end of the day, many people do want to be altruistic and most will want to help someone who they perceive as likeable. And if you come across as aggressive or difficult, they would be less willing to bend the rules for you.

Although there’s a limit to how much we can influence our students’ personality, we can have open discussions about the above three tips and recreate scenarios for students to role-play possible negotiations that they might encounter, followed by plenty of feedback and reflection. For we can all come out of negotiations more satisfied if we learnt to deal with our differences.



Fisher, R. and W. Ury. (1981) Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. Penguin: USA.