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For small business people, or anyone in a negotiation, Fotini Iconmopoulos, a Schulich School of Business expert, unpacks the art of getting a deal

In a discussion on negotiation strategy, Fotini Iconmopoulos advised participants to the recent Globe and Mail Small Business Summit to first find some common ground with the other person.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Negotiations take place every single day. Walking away from them, or sticking one’s head in the sand about them, costs not only time and money, but also creates headaches. That’s how Fotini Iconomopoulos, a professional negotiation coach and instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, sees it.

Speaking at The Globe and Mail Small Business Summit, Ms. Iconomopoulos broke down the art of successful negotiation into five key steps.

1. Hit the pause button

Far too often, people regret the first thing that comes out of their mouth in a discussion, so Ms. Iconomopoulos advises clients to take a few seconds to compose their thoughts.

While our ancestors may have been more likely to face physical stressors such as attacks from wild animals or hand-to-hand combat, negotiations are an intellectual threat. When confronted with a threat, the body’s natural instinct is for all rational thought to dissipate, but the idea of taking a pause is to give a few seconds for rationality to return.

“The goal is to channel this little pause button in the front of your brain and if you can do that, all the rational thought will come back in,” she says.

2. Gain perspective

Just like being a good interviewer, it’s important that a negotiator be curious. If two parties can engage in a discussion with a curious mindset, they are more likely to solve problems together, Ms. Iconomopoulos says.

As a result of being curious, you’re more likely to find out what the other person wants to get out of the negotiation, which is always a crucial part of finding a successful compromise. As Ms. Iconomopoulos puts it, “If you’re only looking out for your need, then you’re not going to have a very good negotiation because a negotiation is two people aimed at discussion reaching an agreement.”

Part of reaching that agreement is to find out the other party’s “why.” While many people – for example, salespeople – might start negotiating by talking up the product they are selling, the successful negotiator looks at the reasons why the buyer might be motivated to purchase.

In her previous life, Ms. Iconomopoulos was a salesperson for L’Oreal. When selling a trendy new makeup product, rather than asking a store to buy one-million units, she says she would point out that the target market would also be looking to buy makeup remover, cotton pads and other paraphernalia to go along with it, increasing the motivation for the buyer.

“I started with ‘why,’ instead of ‘what’ and now all of a sudden that carved out a road for us to have a more fruitful discussion,” she says. “It seems so trivial and it seems so simple and yet it’s the order that is important.”

3. Communicate effectively

Ms. Iconomopoulos says that in negotiations, communication is done in three ways: with words, tone and body language, and all three are equally important.

As a rule of thumb, she advises clients against using doubting language and ranges, particularly when negotiating money. For instance, someone looking to hire a snow removal person for the winter might say they are willing to pay around $400. The word “around” is the sort of doubting language that a vendor could seize upon, instantly thinking they could knock it up to $450 or more.

“I personally don’t like ranges because [the other person] is only going to listen to the one side of the range that is more appealing to them anyway,” Ms. Iconomopoulos says.

She also has four magic words for negotiations, for anyone who ever gets stuck. Quite simply, they are:

“If you … ”

“Then I … ”

If you do this thing for me, then I can do this thing for you.

“When you do it this way, not only are you making sure that they hear everything that they have to do … " she says, “but you’re also finishing with what sounds like a gift.”

4. Ask more questions

Expert negotiators ask far more questions than average negotiators do, Ms. Iconomopoulos says. There are a number of reasons for this: to glean information, to give people a choice about something in the negotiation or to manage conflict.

“When things get really ugly, when they get to a stalemate, questions are a fantastic way of getting things moving again,” she says.

However, equally important is how those questions are phrased.

At this point, she tells clients to avoid “why” questions and instead turn them into “how” or “what” questions.

“When somebody says to me, ‘I can’t,’ my automatic response is, ‘How could you? Under what circumstances?’ ” she says. “I don’t ask ‘Why not?’ You could, but it might make people more defensive."

“So if [the negotiation is getting] really dangerous, if there are ‘why’ minefields out there, just change your why into a what or a how.”

5. Find common ground

There is always a danger with being overly nice to someone in a negotiation, Ms. Iconomopoulos says. The aim is to potentially get the other person’s business, but if one party is overly generous the first time, what happens when they don’t match it the next time out?

“Don’t try to buy likeability during the negotiation process. That’s not what’s going to make you successful,” she says.

Instead, she advises people to find some common ground with the other person.

There was a study done comparing two groups of MBA students in the United States. The first group got down to talking business right away and 55 per cent of them achieved a deal. The other group was told to spend a few minutes breaking the ice with the other side and 90 per cent of them reached a deal.

“It’s so important to find that common ground, but don’t try to buy that during the negotiation process,” Ms. Iconomopoulos says. “Get there before the negotiation starts.”