Practicing for negotiations: Why not?

We practice meticulously for every important event in our lives. Whether it’s a presentation, a soccer game, or an interview, if we value the outcome, we typically spend some serious time practicing (e.g., by dry-running, scrimmaging, or mock-interviewing).

So it’s curious that most of us devote so little time—approximately none at all—to practicing for our most important negotiations. Perhaps we’ll give some passing thought to our strategy for the car dealer or even use the BRAIN acronym to structure our thinking. But mental preparation is not the same thing as active practicing, and precious few of us will ever consider the latter.

But why??? Do we all consider ourselves so much better at negotiating than presenting, shooting a soccer ball, or detailing our greatest strength? Do we all feel foolish enlisting the help of a make-believe car dealer? Do we not even know where to start?

I honestly don’t know.

Since practice is the only thing that can make negotiations perfect (or at least negotiable), however, I’ll assume it’s the last one and urge you to start here:

Pick a trustworthy friend, perhaps an aspiring thespian. Bring them up to speed on every last aspect of the negotiation and your likely counterpart. Then, actually pretend you’re negotiating, making sure to focus your role-playing on the following topics:

  1. Opening and setting the right tone. As in first dates, the first minute of a negotiation sets the tone for most of the subsequent relationship. Will this be a cooperative or combative discussion? A problem-solving exercise or a cage match? Whatever the tone you intend to set, you’d better practice setting it to follow through when the heat is on.
  2. What you’ll share and won’t. In every negotiation, you’ll have to share certain nuggets of information to get to yes. And you’ll have to avoid a discussion of other topics like the plague—your bottom line for example. You need to practice sharing the former and avoiding the latter tactfully.
  3. Responding to tough questions. Your counterpart may well ask you to share the information you really don’t want to. They may also ask questions that tempt you to lie. You need to hear yourself concocting an answer that doesn’t give away the farm or your ethical (and/or legal) compass.
  4. Rebooting the conversation. At some point, most tough negotiations get mired in a positional debate. “I want X!” “I want Y!” And X is typically the opposite of Y. If you hope to rise above such a debate in real-time, you need a practiced strategy for changing the conversation. A strategic suggestion to take a break or a blue-sky question about an entirely different topic?
  5. Walking away if you have to. It’s kind of like the safety demonstration on the airplane. You really don’t want to think about it and hope you never have to remember it, but you’d better make sure to understand it. If a negotiation disaster sets in and you can’t find a way to best your BATNA, you need a practiced plan for walking away gracefully rather than falling into a tailspin.

In sum, for all the same reasons you play a scrimmage rather than fielding a new soccer team just before the game, we should all practice negotiating rather that discovering our negotiation prowess (or lack thereof) in real-time. If nothing else, consider it an opportunity to indulge your inner thespian.