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Language Matters: Choose Your Words Wisely

Over the past few blogs, we’ve been exploring the topic of negotiation and in particular trying to define the skills which separate good negotiators from bad.

We’ve dipped into the emotional and psychological aspects of negotiation, and how behavioural science can help us to improve how we manage other people’s decision-making. We’ve looked at the practical elements required to create the fabled ‘win-win’ outcome, and we’ve discussed the role of problem solving in negotiation.

To wrap things up, let’s now switch our attention to the role that language has to play. There is an old saying that may well have been coined with the art of the negotiator in mind – it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Experienced and skilled diplomats, mediators, lawyers and entrepreneurs throughout the ages have understood the truth contained in this statement.

It isn’t necessarily that, through the power of words alone, it is possible to sell even the most unpalatable propositions to their most ardent opponents. But what is guaranteed is that, if you choose your words and your tone unwisely, you can blow all chance of reaching any sort of compromise out of the water.

This brings us full circle back to our discussions of Nudge Theory and creating the right conditions for other parties to make the decisions you want them to make. Language plays a critical role in that.

Setting the tone

Choosing the right words all starts from adopting the right tone. As we have stated previously, heading into negotiations with an adversarial, bullish manner gets things off to a bad start. When your tone and your words are all built around your own demands – lots of ‘I want’ – other parties instinctively retreat into their own positions and throw up the defensive barriers. It’s a similar story if your responses to everything they say are overwhelmingly negative. If you are serious about concession and agreement, peppering your discourse with ‘I don’t agree’ is going to make life tough.

Your aim from the start should be to make clear that you are willing to listen to what the other parties have to say and respect where they are coming from. Swapping ‘I don’t agree’ for ‘I understand’ is a good start, even if what you then go on to say suggests you don’t really agree at all. But simple verbal tactics like that can make all the difference in establishing a feeling of trust and cooperation, rather than a gladiatorial battle.

In fact, even better would be to swap ‘I understand’ to something like ‘we appear to understand each other’, even if it is followed by a big ‘but…’ Using first person plural pronouns (we, us, our) creates the verbal impression that everyone involved in the discussion is on the same side, eliminating the binary opposition that ‘I’ and ‘you’ can create when two parties don’t agree. It sounds like a small thing, but it can have a surprisingly powerful psychological effect.

Finally, choose words and phrases which make explicit your intention to get an outcome that is favourable to everybody. Use the ‘win-win’ cliche. Talk about mutual interests, benefits to both sides, meeting in the middle, putting differences aside. For a skilled negotiator, this is nothing to do with rolling over and showing your belly. Rather, it is about working to get other parties to let their psychological and emotional guards down, so you are in a better position to get the outcome you want.