How do negotiators lead?

How do negotiators lead? Even the question sounds strange, as one negotiator is not really following the other. Nevertheless, negotiations need leaders. Indeed, the negotiator who leads is often the negotiator who triumphs. And leading in negotiations can often make your own life more negotiable.

So what exactly does leadership in negotiation entail? In my view, having the gall to set a strategic direction for the negotiation. And—since the other negotiator has no particular reason to comply—doing so in a manner that subtly encourages them to follow. Leadership in negotiations, I believe, involves doing five things first, in hopes that they take the cue and reciprocate each time:

  1. Be the first to state a goal: In sharp contrast to the image of negotiators as bombastic businessmen who start by lobbing threats and tweeting ultimatums (not that we know anyone like that), negotiators-as-leaders are quick to inform their counterparts, explicitly or implicitly, that they share the same goal: identifying a solution that solves everyone’s problems. However bombastic the subsequent tactics, the shared goal provides at least the possibility of trust.
  2. Share the first piece of information: Negotiators-as-leaders know that neither negotiator has a snowball’s chance of achieving their own objectives unless both negotiators, having built some trust, lay some cards on the table. But most negotiators are wary of card-laying, lest the counterpart see the full hand. Thus, negotiators-as-leaders lead by example, by sharing a particular card—namely, some subtle indication of their foremost priority. It certainly takes gall, and surely is not risk-free. But neither is leading, the last time I checked.
  3. Ask the first question: The beauty of sharing the first piece of information is that the negotiator-as leader can then ask the first question. Having laid at least one card on the table, they can now legitimately ask to see at least one of the counterpart’s. And here’s the wonderful part: research suggests that when you do something nice to somebody else (e.g., sharing information), they generally feel compelled to do something nice to you (e.g., answering your question).
  4. Make the first offer: Leadership in negotiation is not all lollypops and sunshine. Negotiators-as-leaders also know how to lay on a little bombast, albeit at the right time and in the right way. One appropriate way to unleash the bombast, as I’ve said repeatedly before, is to make the first offer. But the appropriate time to do so is after a sufficient number of cards have been revealed. So negotiators-as-leaders know that they ultimately need to make the first offer, but only after they play a few hands.
  5. Make the first concession: The beautiful thing about making the first offer is that it also enables a negotiator to make the first concession. Having anchored the other side on an aggressive first offer, and having heard the presumably aggressive counteroffer of the counterpart, the negotiator-as-leader can now show some goodwill by backing down from the precipice. And as negotiators-as-leaders well-know, a little backing down can take two negotiators a long way from the cliff.

In sum, negotiations need leaders just as much as other organizational situations. It’s just that negotiators-as-leaders don’t have the luxury of devoted followers sprinkling rose petals at their feet. They have counterparts who may see them as the enemy, and thus show no particular eagerness to follow. So negotiators lead not by issuing directives or strategic decrees from the mountaintop. They lead by taking action and hoping the other side follows. And surprisingly often, they do.

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