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In a Negotiation, Leaders Make the First Move

This is the first rule of negotiation that you should never forget.

I just came out of a meeting where I needed to negotiate a grant contract and once again I forgot one lesson that should have sunk in after all these years of writing about leadership and negotiations: Leaders make the first move.

When we negotiate we inevitably ask, “Who’s going to make the first move?” Who is going to open their mouth first? Have you ever been in an "after-you" situation, with each party insisting the other go first? Sooner or later someone is going to have to jump in.

Simply saying "I am considering…" or "I am thinking about…" specifies parameters you can't later disavow. In the workplace, if you say "I'm thinking of opening a new store in Chicago" or "I am thinking of switching to bonus pay," it won’t matter if you come back the following week with "Never mind, I'm not thinking about it anymore."

While the issue may not be on the table at that moment, those around you will know it is part of your negotiation playbook. It could come back as an issue at any time, and may be used against you. Remember, no matter how many "never minds" you say, once you say something, you can’t blot it out from memory of the other party.

That said, the person who goes into a meeting with a piece of paper and takes the initiative talking about his own agenda has the edge in terms of getting what he or she wants in negotiations. When you go into a negotiation, be prepared. Making the first move can be a very effective strategy.

In particular, making the opening move can help you establish the parameters of the negotiation zone. In other words, by opening the negotiation, you can manage the other party’s expectations and ensure that you set the terms of the discussion. You get control of the field. You give the other party a sense of what is in and what is not in the realm of possibility. Even if your first move does not reflect the extent of your offer, you gain control of the dialogue. While the other party may dismiss your first move, they will be forced to think within parameters you set.

Here's an example: If you offer 8 percent, or $30,000, or a three-month window or whatever it happens to be, you signal to the other party that you are not willing to accept 3 percent, or $20,000, or a one-month window. Something between those two parameters may be realistic, but that’s why you’re negotiating.
An opening-round offer reveals information. Even if you don't intend it to, it does. It sets the dynamics of the negotiation in motion, and you can't just rewind them.

Making a concrete offer as a first move, however, may focus the attention and specify the parameters, but it may show your hand too soon. It may be the wrong move.

What if the other party takes it right away, leaving you to think you made too generous an offer? Here's how to avoid that gut-wrenching moment:

  • Provide room to negotiate. While it’s important to make the first move, it need not be a concrete offer. Provide some wiggle room. One of the mistakes that is often made by negotiators is that they feel the first move must be an offer.
  • Ask a question. You may want to begin negotiations by first making an inquiry--not an offer. Ask a question that elicits information from the other party giving the appearance that you are in control, but disclosing nothing.
  • Throw out some ideas. You could also suggest ideas or state a speculative possibility that reflects your general direction by defining your broad concerns, while not revealing your total hand.

What can you conclude?

It is to your advantage to make the first move. If you understand where you and the other party are coming from, you might as well make a concrete offer to focus and restrict the zone of negotiations.
You want to gain control, but leave the field open because you’re not sure where the other party is coming from, your first move may be to make an inquiry.

If you have the good sense of where you are moving to, but don’t feel you are ready to be cornered into a specific position; your first move should be to suggest an idea.

It takes a little bravado and confidence to make the first move. Don’t get caught in hesitation or sidebar conversations while waiting for the right moment. The other party will make the first move, jump the gun, and define the parameters of the game.

Making the first move may be something you are not comfortable with, but rest assured that letting the other party go first enhances their control of the negotiations. Whether you decide to make the first move by making an offer, asking a question, or suggesting an idea, make it. Lead and take the initiative.

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Last updated: Jan 28, 2014

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Co-founder, Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG)

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), an organization which specializes in leadership development programs with an emphasis on specific behavioral-skills such as leading for change and innovation, political skills to move agendas, coaching skills to enhance individuals and teams, and leading through negotiations. He is also the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation will be published by BLG in March 2015.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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