Six Ways to be a Better Negotiator

by Ben Thomson

If these skills are used worldwide to save lives, why shouldn’t they save your next negotiation?

– Philip Williams, Hostage and Crisis Negotiator and CEDR Trainer

Drawing on our #askanegotiator podcast series with Philip Williams, where he answers negotiation questions submitted by listeners, here are six ways you can become a better negotiator.

1. Listen Twice as Much as you Talk

There is a reason you have two ears and one mouth.

Use this anatomical reality to guide your engagement with others.

In order to influence and persuade people, you need to understand what is important to them, what motivates them and what their values and beliefs are.

You aren’t going to secure an agreement by merely reiterating your demands or proposing offers that aren’t attractive to the other side.

So how do you gain the knowledge and insight needed to influence and persuade people?

Listening and more specifically active listening.

It isn’t about giving them everything they want.

It is about learning what is needed to frame an offer in such a way that makes what you are proposing more agreeable.

Listen at least twice as much as you talk.

2. Find the ‘Loss’

There is nothing wrong with pointing out to someone what they set to gain in a particular situation.

But if you really want to grab their attention and influence and persuade them, highlight what they risk losing.

Research shows us that the ‘fear’ of loss has a pulling or influencing power of between 1.5 – 2.5 when compared with the prospect of gain.

In short ‘loss aversion’ is on average twice as influential.

So how do you use this in practice?

Firstly, recognise that everyone has something to lose, even if they are blinded to it or choose to play it down.

Secondly, and this is the hardest part, find the ‘loss’. Before you start trying to find the loss in your business life, start with smaller everyday instances. Think about everyday situations or offers that you were attracted to, particularly if the appeal was framed around losing something and ask yourself, where was the ‘loss’ in this scenario, and in all honesty, what felt more powerful – the gain or the ‘loss’.

Finally, when you have found it, bring it to the fore and use it in a meaningful way for the other to persuade them that they do have something to lose if they don’t change direction or moderate their approach in some way.

3. Use your ‘Gut’ Instinct 

We all have a ‘gut’ instinct.

Something that is telling us to follow a particular course of action. It’s hard to put our finger on what this is a lot of the time.

Should you pay attention to it or not?

Well, our gut instinct is there for a reason. It is linked to our subconscious thinking.

When you get a ‘gut feeling’ it is your body telling you this is something you need to pay attention to before you make a decision – it is telling you to pause.

So how do we decipher this feeling and make effective use of it?

The next time you get a ‘gut feeling’ about something, pause and ask yourself this specific question:

‘What pattern am I following?’


Our ‘gut feeling’, as mentioned, is linked to our subconscious thinking. This part of our brain is incredibly fast, skilled and ultimately efficient.

Over the course of our lives, our subconscious builds up patterns of behaviour that allow us to perform everyday tasks with ease, for example, the ability to drive a car – a fundamentally complex operation reduced to ‘I did it without thinking’.

So, when we get a ‘gut feeling’, what our body is really getting us to do is either, question or follow a particular pattern.

Be critical. Try and understand whether it is ok to follow a particular pattern or should you step back and take a different approach?

In a negotiation, recognising the feeling, but more importantly, taking the time to pause and reflect will shift your brain from subconscious to conscious thinking which will put you in a position to make better decisions.

It may seem simple, but operating like this is a hallmark of a highly skilled negotiator. 

4. They Decide, Not You 

If I sat down on a chair and told you ‘get me to stand up’, what would you do?

You could use cunning techniques, tricks, bribes, the threat of force or even haul me out of the seat.

But, even if this does result in physically getting me out of the chair, as soon as your back is turned, you let go or the threat is removed, I can quite easily sit back down.

The lesson here?

The person in the chair decides whether they stand up, not you.

This applies in any negotiation where we are trying to persuade someone to do or agree to something. They decide whether to or not.

If you want an agreement to be sustainable, rewarding and capable of producing ‘spin-off’ benefits, the other side needs to decide for themselves whether or not it is attractive to them.

In the case of our example, whether you can put together an attractive enough offer for them to want to stand up. 

5. ‘Go Slow to Go Fast’

Too often when people go into negotiation they lead with ‘My position is this…’ before lurching straight to bargaining hopeful of a quick conclusion and moving on to the next negotiation.

Not unsurprisingly they encounter deadlock.

Not only this, people feel uneasy when in the bargaining phase of a negotiation as it can be difficult, upsetting and sometimes aggressive.

To ‘go slow’, spend time in what CEDR calls the ‘exploration’ phase.

Invest upfront in and throughout a negotiation by taking the time to listen and learn from your counterpart because it will pay dividends down the line.

The very process of ‘exploring’ will do two principal things.

Firstly, it will aid in building rapport. This will strengthen your working relationship with the other side helping to take the heat out of what could be a challenging negotiation and enabling you to test offers in a way that without a certain level of rapport would be detrimental.

Secondly, with what you have learned you will have understood what is needed to craft a sustainable and sensible offer that is more likely to be accepted. For example, why are they are so passionate about their position, what stakeholders are exerting internal pressure over them, what are they ultimately looking to achieve?

As with most things in life, if you don’t ask, you won’t get. The same applies here, if you don’t ask questions, you won’t get insight.

This takes us full circle, back to the first point – listen, listen and listen some more.

6. Responding to ‘Failure’

What is success and what is failure?

For hostage negotiators ‘success’ is often seen as saving life.

An amazing thing to be part of, but does that mean when life is lost, that is a ‘failure’.

These ‘failures’ are complex, either laying in the hands of the person who chose to take their life or the responsibility of the person who chose to end the hostage’s life.

Many people are not even willing to put themselves in the position to ‘fail’ and are too fearful of the ever-present hindsight police.

Success is often about being willing to step into and remain in the arena, not necessarily about the outcome.

Secondly, going forward, focus on training and skills.

Use as your guide, the ‘constant pursuit of excellence’ – a mantra used by the UK military.

Never think of yourself as the finished product.

Reflect, learn and identify the areas in which you could improve.

Success is an on-going journey – this is the mindset of a true professional.


To subscribe to CEDR’s #askanegotiator podcast series from which this insight was taken, click the button below.

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