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How to negotiate in the project profession

By ILX Team | 25 June 2021

As a project professional, strong negotiation skills will help you achieve the results you want. But not all of us are naturally gifted in the art of bargaining. Fret not, we are here to help. Like all skills, negotiating is something we can work on, and with our guidance you’ll be striking successful deals in no time!

Upping your negotiation game can prevent bumps along the road, reduce conflicts, and help projects come in on time and on budget. Read on for our tips on negotiating better and stronger in order to achieve project success…

Preparing for negotiations

We cannot stress enough how important it is to prepare for negotiations. First up, you should know your audience ahead of the meeting. Are the key decision makers going to be in the room? There is little use in going for the gold if you are in talks with team members who may not have the authority to negotiate beyond ‘wiggle room’. Research your opponent ahead of the event and see what you can discover about their history in negotiations, and wherever possible, meet with those in charge of making decisions.

Whilst researching you should consider the other party’s motivations and goals, looking at facts and data. Put yourself in their shoes, as this will enable you to pre-empt what they are likely to want, and you can establish what you can offer them ahead of the meeting.

Additionally, research some alternatives. It is always wise to be armed with a back-up plan in case your negotiations are not successful. Explore different solutions and paths ahead of discussions so that you know whether you have other choices. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot, not compromising with a party, only to find them to be your only viable option.

Before you go into negotiations, be sure that parties affected by your outcomes are onboard with what you are aiming to achieve. Being the person in the middle is likely second nature to you as a project professional, but don’t overlook the importance of listening to staff, stakeholders and clients in order to learn exactly what it is they want, and never work off of assumptions.

Big negotiations will require far more prep than smaller, daily negotiations. That said, even in day-to-day bargaining, you should still be prepared with what it is you are aiming to achieve, and know your audience ahead of discussions.

Communication is key when bargaining

If you’ve done your preparation, you will probably enter the room ready to talk. But wait! Hold on a moment and let the other party speak whilst you listen.

Negotiations are a two-way conference and it's important to take the time to hear what the other side is proposing. Ask questions to learn more, to corroborate your research, and to delve deeper into the drivers behind their proposal. Arming yourself with as much information as possible will allow you to tap into what is important to your opponent and may allow you to steer the negotiations to your benefit later on.

Communication is key when bargaining, so be sure to transmit your proposal in a way that is easy to understand. Make your expectations clear, be open about your motives, and highlight the benefits (for both parties) of your proposed solution. Beyond this, spare a thought for your body language. Keep eye contact to demonstrate active listening, uncross those arms and keep your body language open!

Removing emotion from negotiations (without being heartless)

Emotions can skew decision-making more than you realise, so try to remove emotion from negotiations where possible. This is easier said than done when the project feels like ‘your baby’, or when you’ve built a rapport and relationship with the other party. But emotions can lead to hasty decision-making, and solutions that do not match your intentions.

That said, you needn’t be heartless, cold or interrogational. When negotiating, you must strike the balance between being open and honest, but not showing all your cards. Be sure to avoid hard bargaining with the intention to win at all costs. The other party is not an enemy you need to beat, but someone you need to build a working relationship with. The majority of negotiations will involve compromise.

At the same time, be careful not to come in too softly. Keep the conversation focused, state your case and try to find common ground and a mutually agreeable solution. Don’t allow the other party to make you feel pressured or flustered as this could lead to a rushed, emotional decision being made. It truly is a fine balance you need to master!

Think strategically before closing the deal

When striking a deal there are numerous pitfalls to be aware of in order to avoid them. For starters, assuming your opposition's first offer is their only offer. A bit of back and forth is only to be expected in negotiations, so know this and don’t be put off if they cheekily ask for the moon on a stick to begin with. They are trying their luck.

Arguably the most common mistake professionals make in negotiations is paying more to save on time. Yes, your time and resources have value, but how do the cost savings stack up against what they are charging? Don’t fall into the trap of paying over the odds just to hurry things along. For projects, coming in on budget is just as important as coming in on time, and you don’t want to be left in a situation where you have to make large financial cuts elsewhere.

Which brings us nicely onto our next point – the bigger picture. It is key to always keep strategy in mind. During negotiations it never hurts to pull back and reassess how a proposal fits with your strategic goals. Your project vision is there to keep everyone focussed and to avoid scope creep. Be sure that any negotiated deal fits with that vision and what you are aiming to achieve.

Get agreements in writing

Successful negotiations take skill. Practice by negotiating the small stuff and you will gain the confidence for negotiating big deals. Be sure that whatever the outcome, both parties are in agreement and have reached a mutual ground. As with all business relations, if you are going to work with your negotiation opponent, then the relationship should be nurtured. Ensure that everyone is comfortable with the agreement reached before closing the deal.

Finally, get any agreement in writing as soon as possible after negotiations are complete. Gone are the days when you can rely on a handshake to seal a deal! Writing up exactly what has been decided upon will help to avoid pitfalls further down the line. Be sure that dates and exact deliverables are detailed in the agreement. You may benefit from building compliance checks, payment details and defining T&Cs into the agreement too. It should go without saying that you should not start work, invest time and resources, or pay money until both parties have signed the agreement.

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