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"If only the prospect understood me better, I'm sure we'd have a deal."  

This frequently-heard lament reflects the odd notion that further explanation or more discussion would solve everything. Most negotiation/conflict resolution advice argues that the key is good communication, i.e., listen actively, openly share your views and the problem will be solved. Not so.  

In his book When Talking Makes Things WorseDr. David Stiebel argues that sometimes, the more we talk the worse things get. When a conflict arises with a prospect or client, stop talking and determine whether you have a true disagreement or simply a misunderstanding.  

Don't rely on what Stiebel calls the Great Myth of Hidden Harmony, which is that there isn't any conflict, only poor understanding. What if mutual understanding doesn't work? After all, sometimes people understand each other all too well.

A true disagreement is a failure to agree that would persist despite the most accurate understanding. If you try to keep explaining through a true disagreement, that's a recipe for a permanent turnoff.  

Misunderstanding or disagreement? Use these key questions to help tell the difference:

  • If I succeeded in explaining myself fully, would the other person's position change?
  • Would they feel satisfied if I listened and understood, but didn't change my position?
  • Would I be satisfied if the other person listened and understood, but didn't change his position?

If "yes," you have a misunderstanding. If "no," it's a disagreement. What do you do?

Start by creating the other person's next move in the negotiation.

To many, this seems counterintuitive, because we often go into sales situations asking ourselves, "What should I do next?" But your next step depends on what you want the other person to do. Throughout the negotiation ask yourself, "What do I want this person to do for me right now?" Then, figure out what you can do to enable that to come about. Usually, this involves recognizing and honoring the distinction between the bottom-line goal and the Buyer's "immediate limit."

Salespeople often are focused on the bottom-line goal, such as "I want this Buyer to hire me to revamp their benefits program." But early in the sales process, that's usually not realistic. The Buyer is rarely willing to do that at an early stage. There may be obstacles of authority, credibility, and consultation with other departments. Or maybe he is not psychologically prepared to make that big step. Instead of focusing on the bottom line, look to what the Buyer can do for you right now; this is his "immediate limit."

There is more to the Buyer's thought process than merely "yes" or "no." The road to the big yes is paved with many smaller, but equally essential yesses that can't be ignored. Take small steps to earn the right to advance: When you present too big a step, you encounter resistance and get bogged down.

Often, the idea of creating the prospect's next move becomes a barrier to us because we think that this will prolong the process. But if each move that you suggest is realistic and easy to make, progress will speed up.

Look at sales negotiations from the client's perspective. Too often, we feel that the key to persuasion is to change others' minds. That means fighting their beliefs to show them how they're wrong. Instead, tap into their existing perceptions and build on them.

Here's an example:

Your software industry prospect is happy with current employment counsel. You want him to make you employment counsel instead. Doing so would require him to declare himself wrong and change his beliefs. That's a low-percentage bet. What existing perceptions might he hold that would be to your advantage?

  • Most employment lawyers understand employment law, but not the software industry; they lack context.
  • In today's market, you have to balance protecting the company's rights with preserving its ability to recruit scarce talent.

These are only two of many plausible perceptions that a software industry manager might hold. If they align with your strengths, and are consistent with what you've published and said, i.e., what most people know about you, they might constitute advantageous ways for this prospect to justify bringing you in to provide necessary industry savvy and context for a discrete matter or project. This is consistent with the "immediate limit" concept.

It's nearly impossible to change someone's mind; it's much easier to build on what they already believe.

Mike O'Horo 

If you'd like to learn the specifics of how to progress steadily with small steps, there's an interactive simulation within RainmakerVT called Earn the Right to Advance. You'll learn by experiencing virtual interaction with a prospect.

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