Michelle Buck: Striking a Deal

Northwestern University MBA professor teaches future business leaders there’s more to successful negotiating than getting your way.

June 1, 2006

What makes someone a good negotiator?

BUCK: Good negotiators are both good listeners and good communicators. They’re open-minded to new options. They’re prepared in a way that allows them to be comfortable and focused. They know what they want, and they’re interested in understanding the needs of the other party.

Why is negotiation so hard or distasteful for some people?

BUCK: Some people believe that negotiation is synonymous with conflict. Some believe that asking for what they want is inconsistent with maintaining a good relationship. And some are afraid of “losing,” or that the other party will take advantage of them.

Is the goal of a negotiation to get what you want or to make everyone happy?

BUCK: One of the most common myths about negotiation is the assumption that getting what you want always comes at the expense of others’ happiness or vice versa. There are tools and skills that increase your chances of fulfilling your interests and also strengthening your relationship with other parties. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking other parties why they want what they want.

Can you regain the upper hand in a negotiation once it’s been lost?

BUCK: Masterful negotiators know how to lead the conversation toward the interests they care about, when to take a break to refocus their strategy, or how to shift the discussion from focusing on past disputes to future goals. They know when they should, and should not, mention that they have alternative options.

What’s the best thing to do if a negotiation has reached a stalemate?

BUCK: In general you want to pursue a deeper understanding of the other party’s interests. Expand the conversation beyond one issue, which is often price in real estate deals, and explore other issues that are important to the other party, such as the closing date or the timing of contract items. This enables more opportunities to use creativity to break through an impasse.

The centerpiece of your negotiation course is the concept of BATNA (the best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Can you explain what that is and how that differs from a bottom line?

BUCK: The bottom line is the last settlement that you’d accept before walking away from a negotiation. BATNA refers to what you’ll do if you aren’t able to reach a negotiated settlement. If we don’t close this deal, what am I going to do? Understanding your own and the other party’s BATNA has a significant influence on what happens in the negotiation.

What’s the best way to improve one’s negotiating skills?

BUCK: Practice, practice, practice . . . coupled with reflective learning. In class, we have a cycle of preparation, practice through role-play exercises, feedback, and reflection. In real situations, prenegotiation preparation and postnegotiation reflection are two of the keys to learning and improvement.

Why do you teach negotiations?

BUCK: I had a postdoctoral position to study and teach negotiations, and I fell in love with the idea that a seemingly contentious, stressful negotiation can be transformed into a collaborative, creative endeavor. Since then, it’s become more of a way of life than just teaching a class.

For more on Buck and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, visit www.kellogg.northwestern.edu.

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.