The prospect of negotiating often sparks anxiety, especially if substantive or emotional stakes are high. The mere thought of failing can be self-fulfilling. In sports, it’s called choking. While negotiators don’t have to worry about fans’ reaction to dropping the ball in a packed stadium, critical voices can come from within. The negotiation process is an ideal environment for breeding self-doubt: Have I demanded too much or too little? Am I being naive about the other person’s intentions or too suspicious? Have I won his respect or his contempt? Such questions rarely have clear answers, yet we must proceed nonetheless.
An effective opening to a negotiation requires maintaining a fine balance between solid preparation and remaining open to surprise. As athletes and actors well know, a moderate amount of anxiety may spark our energy and focus our attention. Too much, of course, can be distracting, even paralyzing.
To quell prenegotiation jitters, follow this advice:
1. Compose yourself. It’s amazing how many people seem to think that they can multitask without missing a beat. They may be deeply immersed in a project, but when the phone rings, they’ll pick it right up and start negotiating without a pause. This is a mistake. Take a deep breath and let the phone ring a few times to give yourself enough focus to get off on the right foot.
2. Build on past success. Surely there have been plenty of times when you’ve felt centered and in command. When you enter a negotiation, hold such memories and images in your head. The goal is to be both relaxed and alert. You’ve done this before, and you can do it again.
3. Maintain perspective. Remember the answer to the old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer applies to negotiation: one bite at a time. You should have a simple goal: getting off to a decent start. Don’t expect to accomplish all your goals in the opening minutes.
Adapted from “Overcoming Stage Fright: How to Prepare for a Negotiation,” by Michael Wheeler (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, August 2004.