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Negotiating Agreement

Have you ever presented a great idea, only to see it ignored while other less important things were discussed? This happens to everyone, but it is especially painful for those of us in the workplace.

by Donald Truss
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How to Make Others More Receptive to Your Ideas

“I believe that if an appropriate experiment could be devised, I could prove that no buying decision has ever been made based solely on the facts.” - Michael Gerber, “The E Myth,” 1986.

“I believe that everyone lives by selling something.” - Robert Louis Stevenson, 1894.

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As fellow STEM professionals (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), we tend to think and believe in facts, numbers, and logic. We are less likely to pay much attention to, and often do not recognize the importance of, other people’s feelings in our day-to-day discussions. However, feelings have a strong effect on our perceptions and decision making.

If the word “feelings” makes you uneasy, you are not alone. That’s why we studied STEM topics in the first place—we like facts and tangible reality, even when it is the form of things we cannot see, such as atoms and electromagnetic radiation. We are analytical and we like dealing with things that can be measured—not fuzzy, transient, and unprovable, such as a person’s feelings. But we are members of a team and we often need to convince others in our group to buy into our ideas. If you want someone to do something for you, and if you want to be more convincing, then follow these steps.

The best idea does not always win the argument. Feelings, more than logic, will determine a person’s decisions and actions. For example, think about the last time you bought toothpaste. Did you pick up each tube and rationally consider all the ingredients? Did you suspect or have a feeling that the label may be misleading? Did you believe all of the “proofs” stated on the label? Did you consider the psychological effects of the colors on the box or the font used in the title? Probably not. After all, we are STEM professionals.

“My master’s degree in synthetic chemistry has helped me to become immune to these feeble attempts to sway my decision regarding which toothpaste to buy.”

I promise that the more you understand how the other person is feeling during a discussion, the more likely you will be able to convince them to agree with you.

When I was young and a member of The Boy Scouts of America, we engaged in a very enlightening exercise. We spent an entire day working together as a team, without being allowed to speak to or with each other. We moved logs and assembled benches, and it was amazing just how well we understood the other persons’ thoughts and intentions after quietly, patiently watching them in silence. This is exactly the skill you need to practice if you want to become a better communicator.

Picking the right time and place makes all the difference in your ability to be heard. Start the conversation not when it is convenient for you, but rather when it is convenient for the other person. Be strategic. Make an appointment, or find them when they are relaxed. We are all creatures of habit and fall into transition rituals— patterns of behavior before settling down to work or getting in the car to drive home. Take time to recognize these patterns and then choose the time and place when they will be most likely to hear you. First thing in the morning, before the day’s problems have arrived, is often a good time. After lunch, while they are full and in a good mood is also good. At the end of the day, when they are looking for relief from the problems they are facing can be an excellent time. This process is an “art,” and everyone is different. Paying attention and being strategic is the key to success.

The Four Turning Points - The Subliminal Dance Between Buyer and Seller

In every meeting where persuasion is the goal, there is a subliminal dance of feelings that takes place. Very few of us are trained to see this, so you may need to practice. There are four fundamental turning points in this dance, and learning to recognize them will lead to increased success. In our examples, we will have a “buyer” and a “seller.” Of course, the seller is trying to convince the buyer to agree.

The first turning point is called “breaking the ice.” Here you allow the buyer of your idea to feel in control by allowing them to make the choice of when to get serious and talk business. The second turning point is getting the buyer to admit that they have a need. The third turning point is to deliver your solution to the buyer’s need. The fourth turning point is to wait to see the buyer’s decision to go forward in the buying process.

1. Break the ice.

When you start the conversation, always start by talking about the weather or the game last night, and wait for them to say something showing that they are ready to talk business. He or she may say something like “Why are you here?” or “Did you want to discuss something with me?” By waiting for them to start the conversation, you have given them the feeling that you are a cooperative, controllable, and nonthreatening person. By waiting to obtain their permission to advance, you have given them a subliminal warm and fuzzy feeling of security.

2. Get the buyer to admit they have a need.

Now you will be tempted to “water the garden with a fire hose,” and you must resist this temptation. Your goal in this part of the discussion is to get them talking about their goals and concerns, and the consequences if these goals are not met. Start by talking about the common goals that you share with this person, and listen carefully to how they feel they are doing at meeting these goals. They obviously have “pain” if their goals are not being met. Ask questions to keep them talking and giving you more details. DO NOT OFFER SOLUTIONS! Not yet. This is the tricky part. Your mission here is to get them to feel that you really understand their problem(s). If you are really good at this, you will get them to cry!

“Our department has been struggling with this for months, and if we don’t fix it, we will not meet our target. There goes our bonus.”

3. Deliver your solution to the buyer’s need.

Once you are convinced that they have become fatigued from describing their problem, then you have their tacit permission to describe your solution. Now they will be capable of hearing and understanding your recommendation, because they feel that you understand them. Don’t believe me? Think about this. Imagine that you are in that little room at the doctor’s office. You have been waiting for 55 minutes and no one has checked on you. Suddenly the door opens by three inches and a man in a white lab coat throws a small bottle of tablets at you, saying, “Take these—you will be fine.” How would you feel? Most people would be thinking “Wait a minute, how could you possibly know what is wrong with me? You did not examine me, and I do not trust your diagnosis.” This is the same feeling the buyer gets when you step in and blast them with your solution to their problem. They are feeling that you do not fully understand. You must take the time required to get the buyer to trust you and to feel understood.

“Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” - Stephen Covey, 1989

Now it is your turn. Because you have done your homework, you can describe your solution in a rehearsed, concise way. You have been thinking about this for some time, so you know what to say. Be focused and careful not to ramble. Time is money! Address each of the concerns that the buyer described.

4. Wait for the buyer’s decision to agree with you.

You have danced the dance. You broke the ice and convinced the buyer to describe their problem to the point of feeling understood. You then delivered your prescription, providing a remedy to each of the concerns they described, and now you must be quiet and wait. It is hard to stay quiet here, but it is essential. Give the buyer time to think. As you are silently waiting, start looking for signs of agreement.

They may ask additional questions, and of course you have anticipated these questions and you have a clear, succinct answer for each. Sometimes you can “see the wheels turning in their mind.” The important thing is that you wait for them to move forward in agreeing with you. You cannot rush this. Once they agree with your recommendation, say thank you, and then run! Don’t hang around and risk becoming tangled in tangential discussions. You have accomplished your mission.

Can you see that the logic of your solution is only a small part of the overall exchange? Working together as a team requires good communication skills in all parties. Without successful communication, the perfect solution may never be implemented. Effective communication is one of the fundamental problems we face in business.