Negotiating as an SE: 4 skills to learn from the FBI

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Akshay Jain


Oct 4, 2021


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Recently, I listened to an audiobook on Negotiation “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It”. Its author, Chris Voss, was a top hostage negotiator in the FBI for more than 20 years and saved many lives by negotiating tactfully with dangerous criminals. He later founded his company Black Swan to help businesses and individuals apply his theories in the corporate world. I had always regarded negotiation more as an art than science. My perception changed after listening to his audiobook.

Do negotiation skills matter to Solution Engineers (SEs)?

When we think of negotiation skills in the corporate world, we usually associate them with the Sales teams. After all, it’s Sales who are responsible for negotiating the best deal on the table. When a deal progresses into the Negotiation stage, the Sales Rep takes over while the SE takes a back seat So, do negotiation skills really matter to the SEs?

Yes, they do. SEs might not negotiate on deal commercials, but they negotiate in numerous other situations. Whether it’s negotiating with Sales for a discovery call, Product teams for a feature request, or with clients on their must-have requirements - SEs negotiate all the time! But what skills can turn them into successful negotiators? I will summarize my 4 key takeaways from Chris Voss’ book and focus on how SEs can apply these theories in situations relevant to them.

4 Negotiation skills for SEs. How and where to apply?

1. Mirroring

Mirroring, also known as Isopraxism, is a neurobehavior shown by humans in which we copy each other to comfort each other. It explains why we dress like our colleagues or adopt the beliefs of the people we admire. It’s an unconscious behavior that establishes rapport, which leads to trust. It is great for Negotiation!

As per Chris Voss, in order to mirror someone all you need to do is repeat the last 2-3 words of their last sentence in a calm voice, and they will inevitably elaborate on what was just said. Watch this quick video to get a better understanding.

When your counterpart asks you to do something unreasonable, instead of saying ‘No’ use Mirroring. They will expand on their last sentence and give you more information. If they have a weak argument, they will find it difficult to support it.

2. Calibrated Questions

Most negotiations fail because people have active resistance or ‘unbelief’ to what the other person is saying i.e complete rejection. Successful negotiators don’t get others to believe what they say but get them to stop unbelieving. Calibrated questions suspend the unbelief by taking the aggression out of the confrontational statements. Compare the following:

  • It won’t work for me! (Statement)
  • How am I supposed to do that? (Calibrated question)

If you observe, the calibrated question is another way of saying ‘No’. But more

importantly, it allows you to ask for help. This gives your counterpart an illusion

of control and forces them to solve your problem.

Calibrated questions are open-ended and usually begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’. For example ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?’ OR ‘How can I help to make this work better for us’? These questions will inspire your counterpart to speak at length and reveal more information that puts you in better control of your negotiation. Watch this quick video for a better understanding.

3. Labeling

Labelling is validating someone’s emotion by simply acknowledging it. When you spot your counterpart’s emotion you can label it to learn more about their underlying feelings. For example, “It seems like you are upset about this”. Your counterpart will elaborate on what is making them feel that way.

Labels always begin with words such as: “it seems like...” or “it looks like...” rather than ‘I am hearing that...’ or ‘It seems to me...’. Since you don’t use ‘I/Me’ words, people find your tone neutral and they don’t guard up. Make sure to maintain silence for few secs after throwing out a label. Your counterpart will eventually expand on it. Understanding what’s behind their feelings enables you to build empathy and increase your influence in negotiation. Watch this quick video for a better understanding.

4. Guaranteed Execution: Identifying the right ‘Yes’

We have all been in situations where we have heard “Yes, we have a deal”, and yet it fails due to unforeseen deal killers. The role of the negotiator is not to just get an agreement but to ensure that it will be executed with success. There are 3 types of ‘Yes’ we need to be aware of:

  1. Commitment: The one where your counterpart is committed to executing the deal. This is the ‘Yes’ that we want to get to.
  2. Confirmation: This ‘Yes’ is simply given as a sign of being respectful. It could also come from people who do not have the authority.
  3. Counterfeit: This is the deal-killer. The other party is just lying.

In order to identify the latter two, you need to need use ‘How’ or ‘What’ calibrated questions that ask them to explain what success means? For example, “How does this affect the rest of the team” OR “What are the main challenges you see in implementing this”? If you ask them multiple questions (up to 2-3) and they don’t have satisfactory answers, it means they are counterfeiting! Watch this 2min video for a better understanding.

Conclusion: Negotiation is not a rational process

Most people think negotiation is a rational and logical process. I thought so too. But, It Is not. According to Daniel Kahneman, Noble prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, our brain has two systems: System 1 (faster, irrational, emotional) and System 2 (slower, logical, effortful thinking). However, we all suffer from cognitive bias, and the majority of our decisions are made by System 1 without any logical reasoning. We react emotionally (System 1) to questions, and it informs and in effect creates the System 2 answer. Negotiations are conducted in the same way. If we can use certain tactics to influence our counterpart’s System 1, we can guide their System 2 to come up with answers in our favor!

As I said, SEs negotiate all the time. Therefore, it’s a key skill that they need to acquire. This would not only make them more effective in their jobs but also highly differentiate them.

Akshay is a PreSales leader, experienced in building & leading successful teams in fast-paced and high-growth organizations. With over 12 years of experience in B2B technology sales, he has worked closely with sales leadership to drive high revenue growth. A technophile by heart, he has a penchant for progressive thinking. He has driven several initiatives for process excellence leading to an efficient sales cycle; improved discovery and demos, and better-trained PreSales & sales teams.

Outside Work, Akshay is a proud father of two, an avid runner, and loves to read books on leadership and technology. Connect with Akshay on LinkedIn!

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