Every negotiation has winners and losers. While the goal is to have both sides leave thinking that they won, there are times when someone loses outright.
“Too often, negotiators don’t pick up on the hints they’re about to lose a negotiation until it’s too late,” says Keld Jensen, author of Negotiation Essentials: The Tools You Need to Find Common Ground and Walk Away a Winner. “You definitely want to be the one in the driver’s seat.”
Several signs indicate that you’re not driving the negotiation—that you are, in fact, more likely in the passenger’s seat holding on for dear life, Jensen says. Fortunately, it’s possible to recognize them and course correct.
1. The other side set the agenda
Before any negotiation starts, Jensen says all parties need to agree on an agenda. The agenda should include the rules and structure for the meeting. It can also include established values as well as any potential variables. If the other side has already launched an agenda without having invited you to participate in its definition and creation, stop the negotiation and ask for a break.
“Go out and study the agenda that the counterpart is introducing,” Jensen says. “Carefully go through the items and prepare questions for that. If you continue the negotiation based on the counterpart’s agenda, you are already behind on points because you are accepting their rules of the game.”
Jensen likens it to playing poker and before you start playing your opponent says, “By the way, we’re not going to play by the international rules of poker; we’re going to play by my rules.” He warns, “If you accept that, you’ll lose the game because you don’t know the rules.”
2. The other side is controlling the flow
Another sign that you’re going to lose a negotiation is if the other side takes the initiative and controls the conversation. While it’s a generalization, having your counterpart determine which variable will be negotiated next puts you at a disadvantage.
This is another time to ask for a break to interrupt the flow of action. Jensen says the strategy is similar to sports, when a team calls for a time-out. “A coach may call a time-out not only to replace payers but also to strategize,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a means of disrupting the other team’s flow.”
3. The other side asks all the questions
The type of conversation you’re having can also demonstrate which side is winning. For example, does your counterpart constantly ask you questions but evades or refuses to answer yours? If you are surrendering information and not getting anything back, that’s a sign that you are behind in any negotiation.
“One of the ways that we can take charge and get some of the power back in negotiation is by asking more questions to the counterpart,” Jensen says. “That’s a very simple tool that a lot of negotiators miss because they feel that if they’re not talking, they’re not in control. The great thing about questions is that when I’m asking a question to a counterpart, I am forcing them to start talking and give me information. In negotiations, information is king. The one who [gets the] most information is going to win.”
4. The other side presents the initial offer
Jensen contends that in a negotiation, the person who makes a proposal first gets a benefit that’s called “the anchor effect.”
“It’s the tendency that we will circle around the proposal presented,” he says. “That’s a sign of taking charge of a negotiation.”
The anchor effect is powerful when the anchor is perceived as credible or reasonable. If it’s in line with market norms, it’s hard to push back too strongly against it.
“If your counterpart makes the first offer, regain control by asking questions to learn more about the offer and to help you decide how to respond,” Jensen says. “Do not argue. It’s more productive to the negotiation to keep calm and think rationally.”
Preparation is Key
“Too many people either don’t take the time to prepare or don’t know what or how to prepare,” Jensen says. “When you board a plane, you’ll see the pilots sitting [in the cockpit] with a checklist. They may have flown that airplane 2,000 times before but they’re doing it because if a pilot forgets to push a button, 140 people could potentially die.”
While there’s little likelihood that someone will die in a salary negotiation, not preparing could certainly cost you money. Jensen advises creating a checklist of what you want and insisting on an agenda. “I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’d still forget stuff if I didn’t have a checklist,” he says.
Go in knowing what you are negotiating, your starting and target points, and negotiable variables. “A bad negotiation is like driving a nail into a wall,” Jensen says. “It can be done with just one blow, but it takes time to pull the nail out again and it cannot be done without leaving a mark where the nail was.”
Strategies that seem good in the moment can leave lasting marks. The key is to understand where you may be losing without your knowledge so you can bring your best game and course correct when needed.