Effective communication skills are crucial to negotiation success. You must be able to convince people that your position is reasonable, and do so against adversaries who are convincing in their own right. Additionally, you must be able to control your emotions under pressure, absorb and decipher the opposition's arguments, know when to talk, and sometimes most importantly know when to listen. In fact, if you're going to convince someone to agree to your terms in negotiations, the first step is to listen. It is not good enough to just listen. You should engage in empathetic listening. You want to convey your interests in what they have to say and your understanding of their needs. The components that make up the Chinese character for "to listen" include ear, eyes, and heart. Remember these as you listen to someone. Do not just hear the words, but see what non-verbal signals they are communicating and use your heart to really understand their needs. Additionally, showing you have respect for opposing viewpoints will help earn reciprocal respect for yours. This makes negotiations much easier when you encounter difficult hurdles on the path toward agreement.
Most people believe they are proficient at listening. After all, we do it all the time. In fact, many people if asked would say they are good listeners. Unfortunately, these claims seem to exceed performance. If people were as good of listeners as they claimed, there would be far fewer misunderstandings and communication blunders in daily life.
The first rule to good listening is to stop talking. You need to know when to be quiet and listen to the message your opponent is sending through the words spoken and the nonverbal communication that is present. In The Negotiator's Handbook, George Fuller lays out a few simple steps to enhance one's listening skills at the bargaining table. Using that list as a catalyst to expand upon, here are some skills to work on before your next negotiation.
Always be attentive. During lengthy negotiation sessions it may become difficult to remain alert at all times. However, if you don't, you may miss important issues. You must pay attention to detail, and that requires being attentive. However, there are exceptions. During negotiations there may be times when you want to let the other negotiator know that what he is saying is nonsense. Being inattentive by looking elsewhere, looking through papers, or such other action, may help you get that message across. This is a purposeful inattentiveness, and not daydreaming due to weariness or boredom.
Show you are paying attention. You can send the message that you are paying attention and listening through eye contact, nods, smiles and so forth. Not only does this let your opponent know you are listening, it actually helps force you to pay attention and listen yourself.
Ask questions. Ask questions to clarify what you have heard, but do so in a non-threatening manner. Do not show any skepticism, but rather ask in a neutral tone of voice. Use questions to clarify and illustrate that you are listening, not to convey skepticism of what is being said.
Listen for non-verbal signs. Part of listening is to pick up the non-verbal signals that may be being transmitted as part of the message. Signs such as nervousness may indicate the person is not secure in what is being said, or that the person is hiding something. Don't focus on just the words, but on the entire message, and that can be given by body language, tone of voice and other indicators besides the actual words being spoken.
Do not interrupt. This is very difficult for some of us, but it is critical for good listening and effective communication. Often we will jump on an inconsistent statement catching our opponent and "proving" our position. Remember the goal of listening is not to catch your opponent with the "Ah ha, I got you," but to learn as much as you can that can later support your negotiation position during the argument and help illustrate why your position is the more substantive one.
Be patient. Resist the temptation to fill in blanks or help your opposition make a point, even if they seem to be having a difficult time clarifying an issue or substantiating their position. First of all, your assistance may be resented. More importantly, you never know what valuable information you may learn if you sit back patiently and allow your opposition the opportunity to ramble on and possibly inadvertently blurt out more than they intended.
Ask questions. If you do not understand something, ask for clarification. We all know what assuming does. Summarize what you believe was being said and provide the speaker the opportunity to confirm that you understand what was being presented. This also provides the opportunity to clarify or correct something that you may have misunderstood. In addition, ask questions regarding points that were not covered. What is not said can be as important as what is. If you don't ask, you will never know.
Negotiations require keen listening skills, and like skills in many other areas, the more you practice, the better you will become. Take the time and make the effort to become a better listener. The dividends from increasing your skill in this area will far surpass the investment.
Effective negotiations require effective communications. Effective communicating requires you to be able to convey your message or position to the person you are communicating with, but it also requires you to listen up and understand what is being communicated to you.