Mastering the Art of Negotiating

by | Jan 14, 2019 | Career Skills

Regardless of your job, being able to negotiate is a critical skill for success.

For data scientists, negotiating helps you to:

  • Resolve conflicting views of the effectiveness of a certain model.
  • Request more resources (i.e., $$$) for your data science team.
  • Make a case that a certain department has met a given KPI even though a select group of stakeholders believes otherwise.

In fact, challenges such as office politics, differing opinions, and imperfect situations are commonplace in all industries, not just in data science. That’s why leaving a job doesn’t solve the problem — it only tables it for another day. Learning how to adapt and tackle the issue head-on is the only true way to solve a problem. And that requires negotiating skills.

One of the hardest tasks I’ve tackled in my career is unifying a group with multiple divergent opinions. I’ve also needed to overcome “reverse ageism” (i.e., appearing to be too young) when selling professional services to multinational corporations. In both cases, I found success by dealing with the situation through negotiation.

I want to be clear that I am not claiming to be a master negotiator. I’m far from it. (Just ask my wife.) I’m sharing my experience because there are key points that every data scientist should know about negotiations so they can alleviate some of the frustrations that occur in a professional setting.

While there are many great books on negotiations out there, the book that I used to learn more about the topic is Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Wuy, and Bruce Patton. Whenever I need to get a group of people to consensus, these are the key points from the book that I use to effectively work through the situation.

1. Outline options before searching for solutions.

When people start to negotiate, the parties usually come to the table with their own singular outcomes in mind — which typically does not lead to a fruitful outcome, especially when the parties are steadfast in their desires. A more efficient way to begin is to have all parties outline options (note the plural) of what they are looking for in the negotiation. Once everyone’s options are on the table, the parties can talk through each to see if there’s one on which everyone agrees. If not, they can opt for the best solution given the circumstances.

One of the benefits of this process is that you can sometimes combine options into a solution that was not originally proposed. (This strategy builds on the notion of idea sex that is frequently mentioned by James Altucher, also discussed in this post and right here on Missing Data).

2. Base your proposal on objective, not subjective, criteria.

When going through each option in the above exercise, be sure that the reason you want a certain option is based on impartial, fact-based data, not personal reasons. A key concept in any negotiation is that both sides must feel like they got what they wanted.

This means that you should openly offer up the objective reasons why you think a certain option is the best so that the other negotiating parties don’t misinterpret or become cynical of you and what you’re proposing. Being objective removes any room for misinterpretations and allows for a fair discussion in route to the best solution. For example, if you’re negotiating salary, instead of just saying you want a pay hike, provide objective facts, such as market data.

Unfortunately, some situations just don’t have objective data to base your proposal on. I frequently encounter this since I deal with air permit rules and regulations, an area where it’s quite common to have different interpretations of the intent and outcome of a certain regulation — what I refer to as “gray-area management”. When you find yourself in such a gray area, base your suggestions on outcomes or situations that you’ve seen in similar situations.

3. Be well prepared (and I’m not talking about practicing).

As in most areas of life, being prepared almost always leads to a favorable outcome. The same holds true when negotiating, where being prepared might even help you predict the other party’s next move.

While this may sound obvious, a negotiation is between people, not entities, companies, or laws. Early on in my career, I was told to remember this: People don’t do business with businesses. People do business with people.

The concept is furthered by applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the equation. Being prepared allows us to know the exact drivers the other party is using to make a decision. Yes, enough prep can help us learn what makes the other person tick. This is key because people say no when one of their needs is not being met.

For example, if you try to cold call someone to sell a product — no matter how awesome that product is — 99.9% of the time you’ll hear an objection like “I don’t have time” or “I’m not interested.” A sale is a very private event: Your whole aim is to cause someone to part with their money. So if the potential buyer doesn’t feel safe or conformable talking to you, the conversation isn’t going to progress any further.

If the other party in your negotiation isn’t feeling safe or respected, they may oppose your solution simply because of those emotions — not because it isn’t a good solution for everyone. In terms of Maslow, feeling safe is one need that needs to be fulfilled before someone can self-actualize.

4. Negotiations involve a delicate mixture of listening and talking (but probably more listening).

If you need to be reminded of this point during your next negotiation, remember that you have two ears and one mouth to remind you to listen twice as much as you talk. Arguments often start because one person feels they are not being heard — a common situation in a negotiation, where parties tend to develop selective hearing, which is the root cause of almost every incident of miscommunication. Repeating to the other person what you’ve just heard demonstrates that you’re listening, thus mitigating any opportunities for miscommunication.

As important as listening is, you’ll need to talk at some point. (If not, you’re not negotiating, you’re accepting orders.) When — not if — it’s your turn to talk, it’s important to stick to facts and check your emotions at the door. Just remember that although you’re leaving your emotions out of the mix, the other person more than likely won’t. So if emotion from the other person does come up, acknowledge their point and then use facts to steer the conversation back on track. Remain respectful, or you won’t get very far.

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