How can you become a better negotiator? Consider these 3 principles

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my “side hustle” teaching negotiation to undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University. Yesterday, as I picked up my daughter at school after a day in my Calhoun Hall office, she said, “Mom, you should work from Vandy more. You’re always really happy the days you work there.” She’s right – and it has everything to do with my students, who are curious, compassionate and incisively thoughtful. I often ask my students to reflect on their greatest takeaways from our class. Semester in and semester out, the same three themes emerge:

  1. Negotiation is about collaboration, not conflict. Every time we engage with other people, we are negotiating. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we do so without conflict – so how can those experiences inform how we address conflict when it inevitably arises? Early in the semester when I present this idea, students are surprised. As sessions progress and they practice negotiating in simulations and hear from guest speakers prominent in business and law, they experience firsthand that a default stance of collaboration goes further than one of conflict. In one notable simulation, a first reading of instructions suggests that no agreement is possible. If negotiators open with that attitude, this bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and no agreement is reached. If, however, students are willing to suspend judgments formed in a first reading and inquire about the counterparty’s underlying interests, they reach a deal. This lesson is foundational in understanding effective negotiation.
  1. It pays to be honest about your interests. Many negotiators assume that admitting to interests is a demonstration of weakness. Counterintuitively, honestly declaring one’s interests generally leads to better negotiation outcomes, as it allows you and your counterparty to identify how to create joint value. Where revealing your cards is not a good idea is your “reservation price”, or the price at which you will walk away. Let’s imagine that a private equity investor is negotiating an investment in a company, and is interested in paying the lowest possible price, while the seller wants the highest price. A negotiation around price alone could lead to an impasse if there is no overlap in the parties’ assessment of valuation. Now let’s imagine that the private equity firm could provide access to a customer base the company currently desires. The commitment of the PE firm to make introductions to those customers could increase the value of the company to a level where an investment makes sense. If the target company is not forthcoming about its desired customers, the creation of a ZOPA, or “zone of possible agreement”, is not possible.
  1. You negotiate most effectively as your authentic self. On the first day of class, I ask students why they enrolled. I’m always amazed at how many students claim to be poor negotiators. In almost all cases, they are actually unconfident negotiators, not poor ones. We begin the semester by completing the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument to provide students with a customized baseline of their natural negotiating style – the one they should leverage in most cases – because it’s who they are. We then introduce all the styles – collaborating, compromising, avoiding, competing and accommodating – and analyze the most appropriate style for a given scenario. Over the semester, students try on different styles and experience how to negotiate as themselves, and how to flex to other styles when needed. 

One of my greatest joys in life is working with people to make them better negotiators – almost always by increasing their confidence in who they are and how they interact with others. Negotiation is one of life’s most foundational skills – and also one of the most misunderstood. It is my mission to help people find their authentic negotiating selves to create the outcomes they desire in life.

Interested in having Leonora help you and your team become better negotiators? Contact Angel Horn at to learn more about speaking and workshop opportunities. 

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