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Every HR Professional Needs Negotiation Skills

Two men talking at a table in an office.

​When I was a labor and employment attorney and mediator, negotiations were my life-blood. My negotiation skills had a direct correlation with my ability to serve clients or persuade disputing parties to reach a compromise.

In working with HR professionals, I observed that many lack fundamental negotiation skills. This impairs their ability to ensure compliance, prevent claims, and build trust and confidence with managers, executives and employees.

To grow your negotiation skills, consider these tips for fostering effective negotiations.

  • Never make it win-lose. When HR tells a manager or employee "you can't" or "you must," it creates a zero-sum, win-lose exchange. As I discussed in this column, avoid this tendency.
  • Spend time and energy to find out the other party's needs and priorities. Frame what you want as much as possible in terms of what you learned about the other party's needs and priorities. The more you focus on meeting their needs, the more likely you'll satisfy your own.
  • Keep your emotions in check. Don't let the other party push your buttons. If you start getting aggravated, shift to a curiosity state of mind. Don't ask questions that state or imply your position. Instead, actively explore what the other party's position is and why. 
  • Demonstrate integrity. To maximize your effectiveness as a negotiator, your word must be your bond.
  • When you hit an impasse or experience serious resistance, reframe the debate. Look for a value you share with the other party, and reframe your position to reflect that shared value.

But don't take only my word for it. Here are insights of others who are highly skilled in the art and science of negotiation.

Allison Clarke is principal of Allison Clarke Consulting, in West Linn, Ore., and teaches negotiation skills. She shares the following insights:

  • When you are in a negotiation, be aware of how you are delivering your message. You must modify your message to connect with people in their world, and in their language in a way that is professional and authentic.
  • Also be aware of your posture. If you are standing, your hands and arms should be relaxed by your side so they can move easily. Keep your hands free from objects so the focus is all on you. Relax your shoulders; uncross all body parts. If you are sitting down, make sure your hands are on the table–research shows this builds trust.
  • Make eye contact and note the color of their eyes for better connection. If there are multiple people in the conversation, make three to four seconds of eye contact with each person to be inclusive.
  • Get people to participate by asking open-ended questions. Use their names often and look for nonverbal signals to make sure people are engaged.

Ralph Mabey is an attorney, law professor and court-appointed mediator in New York City for cases arising out of the Lehman Brothers' collapse during the Great Recession. He shares one of his favorite techniques: "Often, a major obstacle in negotiations is the reluctance to be the first to compromise. I handle this by saying separately to each party, 'If the other party agrees to X, will you agree to Y?'

"This approach makes it safe for both parties to compromise. You can use it when mediating differences among others as well as when you're a direct party to the negotiation."

Nate Childs, OtterBox's chief support services officer, depends on a lesson he learned from a negotiations course he took in graduate school: "The truth discovered is more powerful than the truth told."

Childs explained: "Essentially, anything we can do to help people arrive at the right conclusion is more powerful and a better process than outright trying to win with facts or outwitting another person. I have found this to be true in all relationships, especially [people] I work with professionally. I can usually see what a person needs to do in terms of next steps, but rather than tell them, I try and help them discover that path on their own."

Lois Baar, an attorney in Salt Lake City, is a member of the prestigious College of Labor and Employment Lawyers. She has negotiated and mediated numerous workplace claims. "Negotiation is an underrated skill for HR," she said. Good negotiators address the tension between managers, who believe HR should represent their point of view, and employees, who believe HR should advocate for them.

"Ideally, HR doesn't pick a side but stands outside the conflict. I tell HR people to view the conflict or problem from the perspective of an outsider, the way a mediator would view a dispute." This, she says, can include:

  • Working through an ADA accommodation.
  • Handling a complaint where the employee wants the alleged offender fired.
  • Dealing with an executive who wants to fire an employee for vague "insubordinate behavior."
  • Making work reassignments after a reorganization or layoff.
  • Working through a conflict where a manager seems to have an unconscious (or conscious!) bias.

By developing and honing your negotiation skills, you will improve your effectiveness with compliance and claim prevention, and you will improve your relationships within and outside your organization.


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