How Do You Grade Out as a Negotiator?

Most negotiation training focuses on what happens before and during the talks. Michael Wheeler's new app helps users improve their skills after the deal is completed.
by Michael Blanding

We all know the feeling. After a hard negotiation we make the deal, put down the money, and feel excitement and relief that the bargaining is over. And then the doubts creep in. Did I get everything I could have? The truth is, it's very hard to know after we complete a negotiation exactly how we did.

Most teaching around being a successful negotiator focuses on preparations before discussions start, and on strategies during the talks. The problem: We don't spend nearly enough time after the negotiations to grade our performance and learn from the experience.

“We negotiate, if not in the dark, then at least in the fog”

"We negotiate, if not in the dark, then at least in the fog," says Michael Wheeler, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and retired MBA Class of 1952 Professor of Management Practice, who taught negotiation for 20 years. "If we get less than we had hoped for, we wonder if we could have done better; if we get a great deal, we wonder if we could've gotten even more."

In his book The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, Wheeler gave readers concrete strategies for dispelling some of the fog of negotiation in order to be more successful. But even as he watched people use the book, they still expressed constant doubts about how well they were performing.

"People do not do a good job learning from their experience," he says. "Some have gotten better about preparing for negotiation, but afterwards, they let the after-action review drop. It's all fine to read books and take courses, but we have this rich negotiation experience, and if we could tap it and analyze it in a meaningful way, it could lead to more improvement."

With that in mind, Wheeler conceived of a new mobile app, Negotiation 360, which would supplement books and training courses to help people track their own negotiating experience. "A book is very linear," he says. Negotiation 360, by contrast, "is a template or matrix a user can make his or her own. It becomes their negotiating buddy."

Lessons learned in the heat of battle around the bargaining table
can be quickly forgotten. ©

The $2.99 app, available on iTunes, starts with a self-assessment. Users rate themselves on several attributes, such as how much they assert their own needs versus understanding the motivations of others. Rather than let them rate each attribute on its own scale, Wheeler intentionally has users distribute a fixed number of points among the different skills. A high self-rating in one area must be paid for by corresponding lower rating in others.

"There's a very deliberate reason for constraining you," he says. "It identifies what you are less confident about and what you need to work on."

According to how the points are allocated, the app sorts the user into one of five basic negotiating styles, derived from Wheeler's past research (see chart) each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Just knowing which style a person falls into can help him or her to understand which skills to work on—as well as the range of ways in which an opponent might be approach the situation.

"Assertive value-creators," for example, tend to be good at declaring their own needs in negotiation, but less effective in understanding the motivations of others around the table. They also tend to be maximizers—a term put forth by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, meaning they are always driving to win the best deal and rarely satisfied no matter how much they get. That attitude is contrasted with "empathetic value-creators" who are good at understanding others' needs and creatively forging compromises. In Schwartz terminology, they tend to be "satisficers" who are generally content with the outcome of a negotiation that meets basic criteria, even if it leaves money on the table they could have claimed.

"In an ideal world, we all want to be maximizers as we are negotiating, creating the most value we can, and then when it's all over flip on the satisficer button and bliss out," says Wheeler. "But that's not easy."

This is where the second part of the app comes in. Once the self-assessment is completed, users unlock a negotiation scorecard that they can use to track their progress in negotiations and work on developing specific skills, deepening areas where they may already be confident and making up for weaker areas.

For each negotiation, they are given an opportunity to score how well they think they did, as well as the lessons learned and what they would do differently. Over time, says Wheeler, this record can help people see patterns to help them improve, rather than starting fresh each time.

“There is a missed opportunity in learning lessons from negotiations”

"There is a missed opportunity in learning lessons from negotiations—both in what to continue doing and what to adjust," says Wheeler.

Even small changes, research has shown, can mean the difference between a negotiation that succeeds and one that fails. "Even improving skills by 5 or 10 percent means that some deals that would previously lead to stalemate could now be solved," says Wheeler. "The line between deadlock and agreement can be very thin."

On the other hand, negotiations that would have already been successful could be made even better through the benefit of learning from the past.

"If you have someone who through this app or some other means is methodical and structured about keeping track of their negotiation experience meeting up with someone who is not, my money is on the former," says Wheeler.

By gradually gaining confidence in their abilities, users can also begin to get a sense of what is within their control and what isn't, Wheeler hopes. "I can't control whether the person across the table has had a bad day, but if I put my attention on the skills that are tested in the app, that is something positive I can do. As opposed to having negotiation be something that happens to you, you can affirmatively act upon that self-knowledge."

After all, much of the "fog of negotiation" is due to the fact that we can never completely know the mind of the other person with whom we are negotiating. We don't know how far they are willing to go, or how much they are willing to give. Until someone creates an app for mind-reading however, that will never change. The best we can do is learn to understand our own mind and gradually improving our ability to get what we want—and be happy with what we get.

Sidebar: Negotiation Bargaining Styles

Where do you fit?

Empathetic Value-Creator (30 percent): Good at understanding the true needs of others and spotting problem-solving capabilities, you are less confident about asserting your own interests and maximizing your share.

Assertive Value-Claimer (10 percent): You are confident about advocating for your own interests and capturing your piece of the pie—even though your lack of empathy for others might mean there's less of it left to win.

Assertive Value-Creator (15 percent): You are good at advocating for yourself, but no matter how much you get, you tend to worry you should have claimed an even bigger share.

Relational Negotiator (25 percent): You are confident about your interpersonal skills, but not about how well you do in creating value and claiming your share. Maybe you are not giving yourself enough credit?

Outcome-Focused Negotiator (20 percent): Good at both creating and claiming value, you are not always good at relating to others or understanding what they—or you—really need.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

Post A Comment

    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is a great piece of guidance first to self assess our negotiating skills and then to drastically improve considering the reality of the present business environment where competition is more or less "cut throat". One has to proceed intelligently and cautiously using all faculties tactfully to achieve one's goal without letting the other party have the better of us.
    "The Art of Negotiation...." is a must read for all those who have to go for business negotiations regularly. And, the App devised by Wheeler would also be found of value for all concerned.
    • U. Rodgers
    • student, Negotiation and Dispute Resolution
    I disagree with the initial information in this blog. Experience is suppose to be the first teacher, so if you should get in a dispute and are trying to resolve it, I'm sure the second, third (and so on) time around one should improve.