What Labour and the Lib Dems need to learn to ensure future success

David Freedman, expert at Huthwaite International, looks at what the losing political parties need to know about negotiation in order to choose the right leader for a successful future.

Before last week’s votes were counted, we were put on notice by publications and broadcasting organisations to be ready to give our views on the negotiation skills that party managers would need to sew together a coalition. As things turned out, they’ll need negotiating skills, but not in the ways we anticipated. With a small majority, government will be all about whips keeping rebels loyal, knowing how little room there is for manoeuvre. And that requirement for people to co-operate and bargain in pursuit of a mutually beneficial outcome – in other words, to negotiate – is what the political world will have in common with the business world over the coming months.


Parliamentarians’ skill sets are, almost by definition, at odds with those of business people. Unshakeable conviction is (supposedly) what drives politicians. But then the prospect of a front bench job or a big infrastructure investment in their constituency has been known to make an MP every bit as pragmatic as a sales director, finance VP or purchasing manager.


Our 40 years of research and training in successful negotiation behaviour among business people (including a new global survey last year) have produced profiles of what makes effective negotiators. The most important things they need to get straight are: careful preparation and planning; an accurate assessment of where power lies in the relationship and how they’ll use it; and skilled use of verbal behaviours once they get face-to-face, in ways that might surprise the uninitiated.

Preparation is the assessment of objectives, fall-backs, major and minor negotiable issues, limits, targets and the costs of each concession. But successful negotiators spend far longer actually planning how they’ll use that preparation in practice, analysing how and where to use areas of common ground, what sequence the discussion should follow, and how best to maximise their power in the real encounter.

Power, we always tell our students, is in the head. Success in negotiation can hinge on how well you analyse the real sources of your own power.

These are often greater than you think if you really consider them from all angles. And conversely, the other people might have weaknesses which – if you have the skill to expose them – will greatly augment the feeling of power you have as the conversation unfolds.

Ask questions

One of the face-to-face verbal behaviours that can bring that about is the asking of questions. Successful negotiators ask questions more than twice as much as the merely average ones. They also carry that questioning approach on into the bargaining phase, where instead of greeting proposals with counter-proposals, they ask clever questions to uncover the true objectives of the other people, and so work their way towards an outcome that is satisfactory to both sides without the knee-jerk counter-proposing behaviour that is, more often than not, received as disagreement and a failure to listen, and hence injurious to a conducive negotiating climate.

Express your feelings

A few other insights among many we have isolated – whether negotiating in the corridors of Westminster or the meeting rooms of UK plc – are that verbalising your feelings (e.g. “I’m disappointed that a 9% discount hasn’t been enough to conclude the sale”) is a more effective behaviour than hiding them. Those that what we call ‘irritators’ – for example, “I’m making you a very fair offer” or “You’ll find our terms are extremely reasonable” – are closely correlated with negotiation failure. The best negotiators don’t settle issues one at a time. Instead, they see each offer of movement as conditional upon all the others, and then draw all the threads together at the end of the process.

In truth, negotiation skill is a lifetime study and many major corporations have people on their payroll who do nothing else. But for most of us – buyers, bidders or backbenchers – it’s a capability that will help us in pursuit of the outcomes we need for everyday success.

David Freedman is Associate Director at Huthwaite International. He has worked for Huthwaite International for 13 years, helping many of the world’s largest companies to improve their sales performance and strengthen their negotiation skills. He is currently involved in many major bids, in marketing projects and in spearheading the company’s drive into the professional services marketplace.

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