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monday morning manager

Our work life is filled with negotiations, big and small. Whether we're working on a multimillion-dollar contract or just trying to settle on a place to hold a meeting, we're negotiating. And often we freeze up in such circumstances, afraid of confrontation.

"The biggest difficulty with negotiations is a lot of people feel they are negative, and so avoid them. They are put in a position that may not be comfortable or will be disagreed with," said Eldonna Lewis-Fernandez, a retired U.S. Air Force contract specialist who negotiated deals as large as $100-million (U.S.) in her 23-year career before working with two large corporations and then becoming a consultant.

In a recent article for, she outlined the seven most common negotiating mistakes that can trip you up, and added an eighth in a Globe interview:

1. Lacking confidence

Often, people feel they need to be loud or in someone's face to be a good negotiator, and since that's not their style, they dread what's ahead. As well, they figure negotiations require considerable experience, and since it may be a side aspect of their job, that also drives up uncertainty.

"It is a fear of the unknown. Everyone fears what they haven't done until they actually have done it," she said in an interview. But the other party senses that fear in your body language or voice. She suggests building your skills by wandering down to a flea market or garage sale. No vendor , she said, expects to get the actual stated price at such events. (That may come as a surprise to you, so it's the start of thinking like a negotiator.) Don't buy anything at the stipulated price; haggle instead. It will help to build confidence.

2. Thinking something is non-negotiable

It may also come as a surprise that, beyond the flea market, everything is negotiable as well. Too often, we don't ask – or stop when our first offer is turned down. Instead, assume you can get an alternative to what is on the table. "People say no three times before saying yes. So figure out how to get around those nos. Be creative," she said. Even the rules surrounding the negotiations are negotiable. Find a way to break them without breaking the law, she advises. When you decide that the terms for anything can be changed in your favour, a world of opportunity is released.

3. Not building relationships first

She says we live in a "microwave society," expecting everything instantly. So when we enter a negotiation, we head for the final conclusion without taking time to build trust. After 9/11, she was deployed to the Middle East, where she would enter small villages with a list of things she needed to purchase. Negotiations always began with taking about 45 minutes to talk to the other party about everything but the deal. The list would then be given to an assistant to hash out the details while Ms. Lewis-Fernandez and her counterpart continued talking. "The prices were based on the talk – the relationship," she said.

"The prices were based on the talk – the relationship," she says.

4. Not asking for what you want

It's critical that you actually name what you are seeking in negotiations. Sounds obvious, but frequently we never come out with it. "If you don't ask, you don't get," she observes. Often in business, people are seeking referrals, using a relationship to become connected to somebody else, but they never ask, hoping in vain the referral will come anyway. But it usually doesn't, without asking.

5. Talking too much

We've all had the experience when we decide to buy something but the salesperson keeps droning on and ends up talking us right out of a deal. Don't be like that salesperson. Don't overtalk. Be comfortable with silence. Often the next person who talks after a silence caves in. That happened when her sister bought a car she couldn't afford. When they returned to the dealer, the finance manager was determined to avoid taking the car back. Finally, he slammed the folder shut and said "Frankly I'm getting upset!" but she countered, "Well, I'm already upset!" She crossed her arms and glared at him. The silence was intense, but he broke it: "Well, we're a small dealer in a small town," and with that concern for his reputation, conceded to her request.

6. Not documenting

Get the deal down in writing. Afterwards, memories and interpretations can differ. "At least if you have written it down, you have some sense of what the agreement is. Even if it's an agreement to have dinner or call someone, it helps to have something in writing," she said.

7. Signing without reading

This is becoming habitual on the Internet, where we routinely sign forms we don't understand. It's a bad habit, and the results in major negotiations can be disastrous. Don't set yourself up for such a predicament.

8. You can't negotiate with a bully or wild man

Sometimes you will be negotiating with someone who screams and bullies or presents outlandish positions. In such situations, be willing to walk away.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter