Being able to negotiate is part and parcel of what a leader does on a consistent basis. Before you open any negotiation, you must remember to ask yourself: "Am I talking to the right person?"

Negotiation is about doing your homework, assessing your needs and wants, evaluating the needs and wants of the other party, and mapping the negotiation zone--that is, the area of possible agreement. However, you won't get far if you're not talking with the right person. In fact, you can damage your position. Here's why:

1. You kill your productivity

Trying to reach an agreement with someone who can't ultimately put his or her name on the dotted line is going to waste time and energy.

2. You show your cards

By discussing what you want and what you think the other party wants you may reveal a little too much about your position. When you show your intent, you run the risk that the "wrong person" will clue the "right person" into your interest in negotiation. When the right person has more information about the negotiation then you do from the beginning, you may end up conceding ground or backing down from a strong position in order to get some movement in the negotiation.

3. You tarnish your credibility

On the chance that it is revealed that you spent an inordinate amount of time trying to pressure someone who could not ultimately make a decision you may look inexperienced or nave.

5. You risk making an enemy

Lastly, you may inadvertently alienate the right person--that is, the one who has the authority to make a decision by giving someone else your time and attention. You could be giving the impression that you are dismissing the authority or position of the right person, and that you don't care enough to deal with him or her directly.

How do you know you're dealing with the right person? It's not always easy to know when organizations have varying structures and polices. There are few core questions you can ask yourself to determine if you are sitting across the table with the right person.

First, you must make sure they know the ins and outs of all the issues. You need to ensure that the party you are speaking with has the contextual competence to discuss all aspects of a deal with you. Next it becomes a question of power. Does the person you are negotiating with have the power and authority to sign off on a big agreement? Often people pretend they have the say-so, but end up passing the ball to a superior to get things moving.

Even if the person has the authority, do they have the political competence to advocate for your new agreement? Are they all talk and bluster? Or do they have the organizational know-how to get things moving within a reasonable time frame?

That brings us to the last question you should ask yourself. Can the other party actually deliver? While they may know the issues and have the authority and the political experience, they might not want to deliver on an agreement because they are not invested in your effort.

Negotiation is never easy. Don't make it hard by starting talks with the wrong person. When you are ready to put your needs and wants at the table, make sure you are negotiating with the right person.