Product managers constantly negotiate with stakeholders, team members, and customers. Negotiation skills are crucial for reaching mutually beneficial agreements and aligning stakeholders' interests with the product's goals.
In his book "Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it", Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, presents a set of effective negotiation techniques in a wide range of settings, including product management. He recommends that negotiators refrain from splitting the difference because it often results in an outcome that is less than optimal for both parties.
Product managers often must compromise with their stakeholders to get their initiatives accepted and prioritised. However, giving up on certain aspects makes the outcome less than optimal, and ultimately, no one is satisfied.
Does this situation sound familiar to you? Or do you often find yourself in conflict with a tough stakeholder?
This article is a must-read if you're a product manager looking to improve your stakeholder management skills. We will discuss applying the critical lessons from "Never Split the Difference" in product management.
1. Start with empathy
One of Chris Voss's book's central principles is empathy's importance.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. In negotiation, empathy allows you to understand the other person's perspective and helps build trust.
As a product manager, it is crucial to understand the needs and wants of your customers and stakeholders. Putting yourself in their shoes and listening to their feedback and perspective can build stronger relationships and create products that better meet their needs.
Empathy can be developed by asking open-ended questions, actively listening to what is being said, and using reflective statements that show understanding of the other person's perspective.
To show empathy, you also need to understand and appreciate the context of your counterpart. For example, understanding their culture can help uncover potential obstacles you may not know. If you need to understand their current state of mind and challenges, you might pull the wrong trigger and put the negotiation at risk. On the other hand, understanding what can be a positive leverage for your negotiation can enormously facilitate your discussions.
Showing empathy will also help you identify your counterpart's negotiation style and adapt to it. Knowing their style is crucial to your success; it lets you know which triggers to pull to get in the right direction.
2. Know their negotiating style
In the book "Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it", the author presents three negotiating styles that people tend to use in high-stakes situations: the accommodator, the assertive, and the analyst. Each type has its unique characteristics and approaches to the negotiation process.
The first style, the analyst, is characterised by a dominant optimisation strategy focused on finding the right solution. This often means taking more time to analyse the situation and consider all the possible options before deciding. The analyst wants to ensure they are making the best possible deal, even if it means spending more time negotiating.
On the other end of the spectrum is the assertive negotiator. This type of negotiator prioritises speed and efficiency in the negotiation process. They want to get things done as quickly as possible and may be willing to make concessions to close the deal faster. For the assertive negotiator, time is of the essence.
Finally, there is the accommodator. Accommodators prioritise building relationships with their negotiating partners and having friendly discussions. They may be willing to make concessions to maintain a positive relationship with the other party. Accommodators see negotiation as an opportunity to build connections and work collaboratively towards a mutually beneficial outcome.
Understanding these different negotiating styles can help negotiators interact more effectively with others. By adapting their approach to fit the situation and the other party's tone, negotiators can increase the likelihood of achieving a successful outcome.
3. Use Active Listening
Active listening is a powerful communication technique involving skills that can be honed over time. It is the art of hearing someone else's words and understanding their meaning and emotions.
To actively listen, you should focus on the speaker, maintain eye contact, and avoid interrupting them. You should also use verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate that you are listening, such as nodding, smiling, and making affirmative sounds like "mm-hmm" or "yes".
In addition, ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker to share more details and clarify their thoughts. Paraphrasing and summarising the speaker's words can also demonstrate that you actively listen and understand their perspective.
Active listening is a crucial skill that can help you become a more effective communicator, negotiator, and problem solver. By mastering this technique, you can build stronger relationships with your stakeholders, gain valuable insights from your users, and achieve tremendous success for your product.
However, in many cases, displaying empathy and active listening skills alone may not be sufficient. Most situations are more complex than that. You encounter multiple stakeholders with unique personalities, challenges, and constraints that can complicate your projects. With limited resources and an abundance of projects, time and skills are often scarce. This is where being a great negotiator becomes essential, and Chris Voss provides valuable tips and techniques for elevating our negotiation skills.
4. Look for Common Ground
Another critical principle from "Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it" is the importance of finding common ground. You can build a foundation for a mutually beneficial agreement by focusing on shared interests and goals. In product management, finding common ground is crucial for aligning product priorities.
To work towards a shared vision for your product and project, look for areas of overlap and agreement. This requires a deep understanding of stakeholders' motivations and goals and identifying where their interests align with the product one's. Empathy and active listening skills are essential for this.
Leverage the similarity principle: People will like and trust you more when they find commonalities with you. Sharing similar experiences can help build alignment.
If your counterpart is reluctant to change or you feel they need to be on board with your proposal, help them understand the cost of inaction from their perspective. Anchoring the starting point or framing the discussion to emphasise the cost of not taking action can encourage them to look for common ground.
If you struggle to uncover their interests, the mirroring technique is crucial to master.
5. Use mirroring to uncover hidden information
Negotiation is like a discovery process. You need to test assumptions during negotiations. Don't treat it like a battle; aim to uncover as much information as possible. Preparation is essential, so anticipate potential scenarios like you would with research kits.
Don't try to be confrontational if you feel like you're not getting anywhere with your counterpart. Instead, use mirroring.
What is mirroring? It's simply imitation. This technique follows a profound biological principle: we fear what's different and are drawn to what's similar. By mirroring, you insinuate similarity. It allows you to disagree without disagreement, encourages the other side to empathise and bond, and reveals its strategy.
How to Mirror?
- Inflect your voice calmly and slowly
- Start with "I'm sorry"
- Repeat the last three keywords of your counterpart
- Leave a four-second blank
You may feel awkward at first, but once you see the results, you will get used to it.
This technique is beneficial when you feel you're getting nowhere with a confrontational stakeholder.
6. Seek to understand, not persuade
Voss advises negotiators to focus on understanding the other person's perspective rather than trying to persuade them to see things your way.
By seeking to understand rather than persuade, you can build stronger relationships with your customers and stakeholders and create products that truly meet their needs.
It's essential to ensure your counterpart feels understood, as it increases the chance of successful negotiation. You can create an illusion of control where your counterpart strongly feels empowered.
One approach to making someone feel more empowered is to ask questions that implicitly request their help. Doing so creates the impression that the other person has more control over the situation. Here are some examples of questions that you can use:
- What steps would you recommend I take to accomplish this task?
- What are the primary obstacles that you are currently facing?
- What measures can we take to improve the situation?
- Can you provide me with some context about how we got here?
Once you have correctly understood your counterpart, you should look for a way to validate this understanding. One way to do this is to create a "that's right" moment, where the other person feels their perspective has been accurately summarised.
To achieve a "that's right" moment, summarise and label the other person's view, showing that you understand their perspective. This can help create a breakthrough in the negotiation.
7. Use "labelling" to acknowledge emotions
"Labeling" is a technique that involves acknowledging and validating the other person's emotions. For example, you might say, "It sounds like you're feeling frustrated about this."
In product management, acknowledging and addressing the emotions of your customers and stakeholders can help to build trust and improve your relationships with them. By labelling emotions, you show that you understand the other person's perspective and are willing to work with them to find a solution that meets their needs.
Acknowledging your counterpart's situation shows that you are listening. If you have uncovered a fear, you must put it out in the open to clear the barriers to agreement. Like mirroring, you must let the other party fill in the silence once you have made your point.
Starting with an accusation audit can help if a situation is challenging. This involves saying out loud the worst things your counterpart could say about you (or may have already said). Although it may feel extreme, it can encourage the other person to open up.
I have used this technique to clear the air with a frustrated Sales Manager. Rather than a meeting full of passive-aggressive allusions, I preferred to voice what I perceived as the blocking points and see if we were aligned. For example: "It seems like you feel the product team is doing a poor job at communicating their priorities" or "It seems like you feel we do not involve you enough in discovery."
Once again, you deal with someone who wants to be appreciated and understood.
This technique is beneficial if you feel the situation is tense and will only have a constructive discussion once you've lowered the tension.
8. Treat fair as a keyword
"Fair" is a powerful word in negotiations that you should always leverage:
- Fair as an opportunity to start over: If your counterpart resists and tells you, "We just want what's fair", it is an opportunity to fix things from where the unfairness began. Simply ask what "fair" means to them.
- Fair as a call for backup: In some situations, we can use the word "fair" to accuse the other party of being unfair. For instance, if your counterpart says, "This is a fair deal", you can respond with ", It seems like you're ready to present evidence to support that."
- Fair as a safety net: Using the word "fair" positively can create a more cooperative environment. For example, you can say, "I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me anytime if you feel I'm being unfair, and we'll address it." This helps to establish trust and a sense of collaboration.
It's also important to keep in mind the principle of loss aversion. People tend to take more significant risks to avoid losses than to achieve gains. By framing negotiations in terms of fairness, we can reduce the fear of failure and make negotiations more productive.
9. Beware of "Yes”; Master the "No"
Pushing for a "Yes" can make them feel defensive when trying to persuade someone. However, getting a "No" can be the starting point for a negotiation. By allowing your counterpart to define their space and express what they don't want, they can gain the confidence and comfort to listen to your perspective.
Sometimes, getting someone to say "No" can be difficult. In these situations, it may be necessary to mislabel one of their emotions or concerns so they feel they have no choice but to say "No."
How does it work in practice? Let's say someone is ignoring you or not responding to your requests. One effective way to re-engage them is by asking a "no"-oriented question, such as, "Have you given up on this project?" This can lead to a discussion about any concerns or obstacles preventing progress and open the door to finding a solution that works for both parties.
However, "Yes" is also of no use until we get the answer of how. Your responsibility does not stop once you have executed your part. You also have to make sure that your counterpart manages its part. Guaranteed execution is all about detecting liars. To detect liars, you can rely on the Pinocchio Effect: liars use extra words, converse in more complex sentences, and practice far more third-person pronouns.
To ensure commitment from your counterpart, you can use the Rule of Three: getting the other party to conform to the same thing three times.
"Never Split the Difference" offers valuable insights and techniques for effective negotiation that can be applied in product management. By starting with empathy, active listening, looking for common ground, using "labelling" to acknowledge emotions, and seeking to understand rather than persuade, product managers can build stronger relationships with their stakeholders and unblock situations that would have been detrimental to the company if not solved.
By developing these skills, product managers can navigate complex stakeholder relationships, align stakeholder interests with product goals, and negotiate mutually beneficial agreements that drive product success. Applying Chris Voss' techniques, although uncomfortable, has dramatically helped me improve my relationships with stakeholders.
However, negotiation is only one aspect of managing your relationships. It is essential to ensure execution and follow through on commitments made during the negotiation. Simply saying "yes" is meaningless without a plan for achieving it. Building trust takes time and can be easily destroyed, so delivering and making high-integrity commitments to your stakeholders is crucial.
Stakeholder relationships can only improve over time by applying Chris Voss' techniques, clear and transparent communication and flawless delivery.