Influence and the Art of Negotiation

Oct 30th, 2018


“Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood”

– Stephen Covey


As Brexit talks reach crunch-point and Trump announces the US is pulling out of another long-standing international treaty with Russia on nuclear weapons, the art of negotiating is in the headlines. Negotiations here are seen as jousts with each party posturing to protect its own interests. As Roger Fisher explains in his excellent book ‘Getting to Yes’, this competitive approach to negotiation assumes a fixed pie, a win-lose situation.

I find it more helpful to view negotiation in terms of your ability to influence. The word influence comes from the Latin influentia, meaning ‘inflow’. It was used specifically in astrology to mean the flowing in of ethereal fluid that affects human destiny. This sense of indirect action to bring about change is very relevant in today’s workplace which requires navigating upwards, downwards and sideways to get results.

12 months ago, a client found himself struggling to make headway with a marketing transformational programme. He had been hired directly by the CEO as an expert in his field but the board was proving hard work – he said their views were entrenched, they did not listen to him and it was impossible to get them to see his point of view. I discovered that key board members were equally frustrated. While this person was clearly a technical expert, they said he had yet to demonstrate the impact the proposed approach would make to business results. Tension was palpable.

At these times of conflict there is a tendency to dig our heels in on our view points. Instead, take the time to investigate the other parties’ perspective. I will often invite clients to ‘wear a different set of glasses’ and reflect on the reasoning and perspective of the ‘board member’ so that their voice is heard in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ‘opposing view’.  By inhabiting this perspective there are always new insights to reveal how we could be blocking our ability to influence. In this case my client realised that he had been pushing his agenda without building the relationships and taking a far more collaborative approach to engage the board and build trust so that he could truly understand their needs and respond accordingly.

Here are some of the things we did to move forwards. If you need to influence, even in the toughest of circumstances, ask yourself some key questions:


  1. Does this negate an important value?

There are times when what you are negotiating for is so important that to compromise creates a deep tension within us and goes against a master value. At these times we need to ask ourselves ‘what am I willing to accept’? There is a freedom and confidence that comes from deeply knowing what we will accept and what we are not willing to compromise on that can resonate with people so they listen.


  1. Where is your relationship now?

Ask yourself – where is the relationship now and where do you want it to be?  My client took a hard and honest look at his relationship with the board and with each member, identified the tension points, envisioned what he wanted the relationships to look like, and as a result, was able to take some specific and quick-win steps to move towards that vision. The board noticed the change in approach and responded accordingly, thus marking the start of the turnaround.


  1. What do you agree on?

At some level you and the other party want the same thing. It is important to start from this point where you are in agreement.  Keep on moving back to this point when talks break down as it is the best place to leverage creative thinking.


  1. Do you understand the why?

Before any negotiation, ask yourself: are you really clear on the why? Why are you are doing it and do you fully understand the other parties’ why? The Irish border question is a very difficult issue in Brexit, but because parties agree why it is vital and what is at stake, there is a common commitment to find a solution, even if the how is not yet clear. In my client’s case, he refocused his presentation to articulate the Board’s ‘why’ – using language the board themselves used – as to why his initiative was important to the company’s success.


  1. Who are your stakeholders?

If you have a decision to influence, it is vital to take the time to do a stakeholder map to understand all the forces in play. Who are the visible stakeholders? And who are the less visible people influencing those stakeholders?  Take time to ask – what financial or emotional interest do they have in the outcome of your work? What motivates them most of all? What information do they want from you and how do they want you to deliver it?


  1. Do you Predict or Defend?

We have all sat through presentations waiting for the presenter to answer the burning issue – and finding ourselves irritated as we are made to wait.  The mood becomes tense and this puts the presenter on the defensive.  Another client had a critical meeting to gain agreement on a corrective strategy which was likely to be an emotive discussion where the Board wanted answers as to why mistakes were made.  In these cases it is far better to anticipate what is on the audience’s mind and acknowledge those burning issues at the very start; “I know some of you are thinking x and I will answer that.” You do not have to answer the question straightaway, simply acknowledge that you are going to address it is important. When making large presentations think carefully too about the place and the atmosphere you want to create.  For example, a U-shaped arrangement of seating is often more conducive to collaboration than a ‘them and us’ row of seats facing one presenter.


  1. Are you grounded?

Research has shown that those who demonstrate strong emotion such as anger or upset in a negotiation are less likely to get the best outcome. Grounding yourself before an encounter, as simply as closing your eyes for a few moments and breathing deeply, can make all the difference. My client made sure he took a few moments before walking into that emotive Board discussion to ground himself by doing a simple centring exercise so he was physically as well as mentally prepared. Master the art of relaxation as a relaxed mind moves faster and is more creative.


  1. And if it doesn’t go according to plan?

During your preparation, imagine the worst that could happen and have a contingency plan – if you can handle the worst you can handle the best. But know that sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, things can go pear-shaped. I advise coming back to the equation E + R = O.  You cannot control the event (E) that happens to you but you can control your Response (R) in order to get the Outcome (O) you want. How you respond, regardless of what the person in front of you does, will influence the outcome of the negotiation underway.  Show curiosity when being challenged – it not only shows an interest in the other person it also gives you valuable time to pause and think about the best response.


Being a leader today requires continual attention, collaboration and agility to adapt to each situation. There are no set processes that ensure success. But put relationships at the heart of your efforts, build trust and transparency and you will optimise the opportunity for positive outcomes for all.


If you want to increase your impact and influence contact Oona at

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