Consulting – particularly in IT business – is about discussion and quality. You have to discuss requirements, agree on some specifications and eventually develop a working solution. If you work in time & materials model, some misunderstandings and issues connected to budgets or quality of work can also emerge.

Dealing with hard negotiations more often than not isn’t pleasant or easy. If you have business / management background I guess you can have some heuristics or patterns to use. However, for me it was always hard, as I had to learn it from the trenches.

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There are no shortcuts

I’m a kind of person who doesn’t like conflicts. I’m trying to avoid them both in personal and professional life. I think that the reason is that the emotional cost of being involved in conflict is extremely high for me.

After few years in business, I see it has the same number of good and bad consequences. Particularly, I have long and good relations with people who worked with me in the past or have done business together – even in cases where we faced some failures. The bad news is that by trying to avoid conflict at any cost I often tended to give up my needs and focus on achieving quick agreement.

I have to say – after 8 years in business: achieving quick agreement is rarely good in the long run. It can be beneficial in short term – you have time to do business rather than thinking about arguments. But conflicts that were stifled by any side too quickly tend to return – because of broken trust made by the situation or by not fulfilled needs. There are no shortcuts.

Situation of overrunning budget in IT project is a classic example. When you do time and materials accounting it’s easy to lost discipline, trying to make the best system ever. Clients find it difficult to track each hour worked by developers and particularly to track the rest of budget we have to spend for finishing works. Therefore, a situation that budget has been overrun is quite frequent.

Evidence vs discussion

If application is really needed by the client, they can agree on the spot to continue work not getting deeper in the issue. But let me assure you – it will return someday, and you may be named dodgy or cheater.

When the client raised the issue at this point, it’s better – even if it may seem counter intuitive. But you then have the chance to clear the situation out.

When IT people face this kind of problems, I noticed that the intuitive path to follow is not trying to discuss but to show the numbers (like budget overrun, why it took so many hours, etc.) or going back to the agreement and arguing that “we have good agreement and we could have done this so we did!”. It’s good to have numbers and hard evidence BUT it’s not the way you convince the client to trust you again or to fulfill their needs! All in all, the best scenario is to continue works or even do next projects with this client, right?

If nobody feels bad, misinformed, pushed or under pressure, they can become good, long-term business partners.

The framework

I’ve read a great book “Getting past no” describing the framework for negotiations with difficult people. It was great for me! It showed me the way to negotiate without bad emotions and to search the solution agreeable for both sides, without fierce or bad emotions. The framework is about discussing the issue thoroughly, it’s goes like this:

Step 1: Don’t react – „Go out to the balcony”; Don’t agree on the spot or show any emotions; Listen, repeat by your words; don’t react.

Step 2: Disarm your opponent – make a step towards them. Help them regain their own mental balance. Whatever language you use, the key is to present your views as an addition to, rather than a direct contradiction of your opponent’s point of view.

Step 3: Reframe the dispute in terms of interests rather than positions.
Ask “why” questions to elicit the opponent’s interests. If they resist, ask them “why not” questions about alternative solutions. “What if” questions introduce new options without directly challenging the opponent’s position. Position-based negotiating tactics can be handled by ignoring them, or by reformulating them. Reinterpret firm positions as aspirations.

Step 4: Build them a golden bridge – make it easy for them to say ‘yes’ by removing common obstacles to agreement.
Opponents may resist ideas that are not their own. Avoid the temptation to tell the other side what the solution is. Instead, ask them for their ideas and constructive criticism. Offer them choices. An opponent’s resistance may indicate that they still have unmet interests. Do not rush the final agreement. Allow the opponent to “go out to the balcony” before making their decision.

Step 5: Step five, which complements step four, offering ways to make it hard for the opponent to say ‘no’. Ask them reality-testing questions about what will happen if no agreement is reached. Alert them (without threatening) to your BATNA.

It’s great to read or listen (Audible!) the entire book because detailed hints for particular situations are given there.

Let me know in comments how do you solve critical situations and which steps do you follow in negotiations!

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