Don’t overlook this key life skill: whether you’re trying to get the best price, free a hostage, or just navigate a lasting marriage, a lot depends on your ability to negotiate
My wife was having serious doubts about our marriage before we’d even finished our honeymoon.
We were in Indonesia, where I was happily embracing the local market culture by engaging in a haggling match for every item that was pitched at the tourists.
The straw that nearly broke the camel’s back however, was the day that I started into a lengthy negotiation over the price of a pair of deck chairs on the beach.
As I gesticulated and cajoled the way through my standard playbook of market bargaining, I ignored the warning signs that this wasn’t her definition of love and romance.
After a minute or two she exploded. “What are you at? Sure it only costs a bloody euro!” she whispered theatrically as she pulled me to one side, her furious face inches from my bewildered one.
In an effort to end the embarrassment as quickly as possible, she thrust a ball of rupiah at the now delighted sun-bed attendant.
As we lay on our over-priced beach beds, fuming with each other’s apparent irrationality, I belatedly realised that I was not married to a haggler. And she was stuck with someone who revelled in the art of bargaining.
I can remember my first unofficial lesson in the dark arts of the deal as I accompanied my dad on trips to cattle sales around the country.
They were often long journeys home on dark evenings, when I think the exhilaration of bidding thousands of pounds always left him in an expansive mood.
“If you’re naming your price first, don’t be afraid to go like the Cavan man and embarrass them with a ridiculously low offer,” he said, with only the hint of a smile.
“But what if that makes them angry?” my slightly shocked 12-year-old self replied.
“It might,” he conceded, “but it sets a marker. They have to work their way up from that.”
Until I got married, this concept of gaining the psychological edge by dropping an extremely low opening bid was a ploy that served me well all over the world.
But I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that wedded life forced me to up my game in the art of negotiation.
If only I had read Chris Voss’s book, Never Split the Difference. The author trained as a hostage negotiator with the FBI, and now is a consultant and lecturer in negotiation skills.
The art of the haggle, bargaining and negotiation is pretty fundamental to every aspect of our lives. Whether you’re trying to get the best price, free a hostage, or just navigate a lasting marriage, a lot depends on your ability to negotiate.
Among the anecdotes about dealing with bank robbers in New York, kidnappers in Haiti and terrorists in the Philippines, Voss’s book sets out what he sees as the key principles of successful negotiation.
My dad’s technique of dropping an extreme anchor is right there, but developed further. Rather than settling for offer, counter-offer, and a split-the-difference dynamic, Voss lays out a four-step plan.
First you decide your target price. Then you set your first offer at 65pc of the target, with the intention of moving to 85pc and 95pc before finally offering 100pc of your full price.
You can’t rush this, since your counterpart should feel they’ve squeezed you for every drop by the time you get to your 100pc offer.
While you might think this is transparent nonsense, research has shown that people getting concessions often feel better about the bargaining process than those who are given a single firm, ‘fair’ offer.
Each time you refuse a counter-offer, you need to figure out a way to do it without using the word no.
For example, ‘I understand that my offer may be disappointing but I just can’t afford that price’. Not only is this a softer push-back than a flat-out no, it is also empathetic.
And you can’t empathise unless you are listening carefully. While good deal-makers are often seen as lads with the gift of the gab, the best negotiators are actually great listeners.
Two techniques to try to seal the deal include using a non-round number as your final offer, and offering to throw in a non-monetary item to prove that you have offered every last cent.
A lot of this is intuitive for natural hagglers, but the book crystalised the importance of preparation if you are serious about getting a result from a particular negotiation.
You can’t go in there without being super-clear about what you want, what they want, and the whys behind both positions.
In fact, Voss recommends writing out all the questions and rebuttals you are likely to encounter. Calling out the likely road-blocks to an agreement early in negotiations is a critical step.
Calibrated questions to draw out the key issues, trigger words, mirroring… there’s a lot more to this than just four steps.
But making the leap from haggler to negotiator is a skill-set nobody can afford to be without.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm enterprise in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie