Negotiating Skills Are a Must for HR Consultants

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR September 26, 2008

To many people, “negotiation” is a dirty word that conjures up images of disreputable used-car salespeople who are out to make a quick buck at the expense of unwitting marks. In reality, though, negotiation is a part of life, both business and personal. For HR consultants, in particular, negotiation skills are a must and can make the difference between new prospects and better contract terms, and lost prospects and money left on the table.

The likely reason that negotiations can make some people uncomfortable is the suggestion that there is a win-lose scenario. The key to effective negotiation is an understanding that both parties can be winners and that a win-win outcome should be the goal.

Overcoming the Fear

Dan Weedin, a Seattle-based executive speech coach and presentation skills consultant, says a fear of negotiation is similar to a fear of public speaking. Harboring such a fear can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in an HR consultant; the more fearful consultants are of the negotiation process, the more they might avoid those situations and the less they get to practice dealing with them and becoming more comfortable with conducting a negotiation.

Just as public speaking skills require practice, so do negotiation skills, Weedin says. “The opportunity to perform and deliver in front of a group is the best way to prepare for being in a negotiation,” he says. A way to simulate negotiations is to practice answering questions without preparation, he says. That “is a great way to be prepared for any questions or challenges that come up unexpectedly during a negotiation,” he says.

In addition, HR consultants need to become alert to the everyday situations in which negotiation skills are used without even the consultant realizing it. Everyone negotiates, whether they recognize it or not, and the process of developing negotiation skills starts as speech develops. By wheedling parents into buying a certain toy or approving staying up late, by convincing a friend to play a game one way, by asking someone to go on a first date, or by convincing a teacher that a higher grade is deserved, negotiation skills are employed.

In addition, there are numerous situations that require negotiation skills occurring every day. Being alert to those situations and using them as opportunities to practice negotiation skills in relatively risk-free settings can be a good way to build confidence, Weedin says. “Lack of confidence and lack of stage time are the two main factors that lead to the fear of negotiation,” he adds. “Confidence can be improved with the development of negotiation skills like active listening, empathy and the use of probing question,” he says. “With constant repetition comes increased confidence.”

Needs vs. Wants

Another key point to make negotiations less intimidating is learning to focus on needs instead of wants.

Andrew Apfelberg, a lawyer with the Los Angeles law firm Rutter, Hobbs and Davidoff Inc., and senior business consultant Mark Jaffe, who has his own firm in Southern California, say negotiating is not about winning or losing and is more than just clever gamesmanship. Negotiation is a process that can make or break business relationships, and too often the people involved in negotiations are actually debating the wrong issues because they are focused on what they want rather than what they need. To help people focus on achieving what they need, rather than what they want, Apfelberg and Jaffe have designed a process—called NETS—which they say will lead to win-win results and will build rapport between the negotiating parties. NETS is an acronym of the program components. Its parts and meaning are:

Needs vs. wants. Focus on what both parties need, rather than what they want.

Expectations. Establish expectations that are realistic and flexible.

Trust and reciprocity. Give as well as receive to create an atmosphere of trust.

Straight talk and logical decisions. Focus on establishing authenticity rather than game playing.

Identifying the needs of each participant is the first step to creating a win-win outcome. For example, two sisters want an orange and neither is willing to give in. Finally, they decide to cut the orange in half, which seems like a fair solution. However, an examination of the motives behind each sister’s desires shows that one sister wanted the pulp of the orange to eat, while the other wanted the rind to use in baking a cake. Obviously, cutting the orange in half resulted in each sister getting only half of what she truly wanted. Had they explored each other’s needs, they would have each received 100 percent of what they wanted.

By exploring the needs, goals and barriers facing both sides in a negotiation, it is possible to come up with alternatives that will meet the needs of both sides. However, the ability to do this effectively requires trust, which is not always present in negotiation situations, especially when dealing with a prospect.

Building Relationships

Jane Goldner is a leadership and organizational expert who says that in any negotiation involving an HR consultant, the underlying goal of the consultant should be building a longer-term relationship. “Certainly the chemistry has to be right; the client has to trust that you are able to help solve their problem, and the client needs to be able to see you as fitting in their organization,” she says.

Building a relationship of any kind requires getting to know and understand each other. Listening is a critical skill for consultants, perhaps nowhere more critical than during the negotiation process.

Taking the time to explore the needs of a prospective client can provide insights into what really matters and can help the HR consultant frame his or her offer to meet the prospective client’s needs effectively. “Be willing to generate options rather than fitting the client’s issue into your template of solutions,” says Goldner. “Negotiations are about people first. Listen long and hard to the potential client’s need. Often embedded within the description of the issue are deeply held values and interests that you can key into through your solution,” she says.

While effective negotiations are based on strong, trusting relationships, HR consultants should never forget that negotiations are business deals, Goldner says. “These transactions are not personal, they’re business deals.” Taking negotiations personally can be a key derailer for HR consultants, she adds. Therefore, when involved in any type of negotiation, remain focused on the fact that it is a business deal and keep emotions in check. “As in any working relationship, the client has to be convinced of your competence, have an opportunity to build trust with you and be sold on the value that you are bringing to the table,” she says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).


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