Finance professionals will need to bolster their negotiation skills as soft skills become a more critical part of a management accountant's toolbox. But negotiation can often feel like a daunting skill to develop. When it comes to negotiation, people sometimes focus too heavily on the potential conflict of the situation and psych themselves out before the conversation has even begun.
However, it is a learnable skill. Fotini Iconomopoulos, author of Say Less, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get You What You Want, says the key to effective negotiation is not swagger or bravado, but mindful pauses and mental reframes.
These excerpts from a recent FM podcast episode with Iconomopoulos offer practical advice on how management accountants can increase their power and overcome anxiety during all types of negotiations.
Here are a few highlights from that conversation:
Podcast host Courtney Vien: Many people are anxious about negotiating. Why is that?
Fotini Iconomopoulos: There's certainly a fear attached to the word "negotiation". When I say the word, it sends a shiver down some people's spines. Usually, it's associated with conflict. In pop culture in general, we get these references from movies and TV and so on where it's, "Oh, negotiating, that must mean you're beating each other up", and it's like, that's actually not the intention.
People always ask me, they're like, "Well, your life must be like that show Suits." I'm like, "Actually, no." My life is preventing those moments from actually ever happening. My life is quite boring, and effective negotiation is actually quite boring. Most people assume that there's going to be a lot of drama attached to a negotiation. That's where the fear kicks in. It's this primal instinct we have when we're faced with an uncomfortable situation, where all rational thought leaves our brain. That's when we have those moments that make us go, "God, why did I do that? Why did I say that?"
If that's what you think is going to be looming, that's only going to create even more build-up and more fear. Once people understand what negotiation truly is or some tools to help them through some of what they perceived to be a very difficult conversation, a lot of fear starts to dissipate.
That part of my job is to help people understand that it actually doesn't have to feel like a boxing match in order to make both people satisfied.
Vien: That's one technique you can use to reduce your anxiety around negotiating. You can reframe and tell yourself it doesn't have to be a confrontation. What are some other ways people can cut down on that anxiety?
Iconomopoulos: One of the easiest ways is simply to pause. I talk about finding your mental pause button. It is literally to stop talking. The title of my book is called Say Less, Get More for a number of reasons. But this is the primary one. Spend a moment thinking instead of talking, spend a moment reframing the situation in your brain, spend just a moment taking a meditative breath. Breathe in for four, hold for six, and out for eight. Just taking that time to think before speaking to allow yourself to calm down and allow some of that adrenaline rush to wear off a little bit will get you much better results.
There's also a lot of studies from the psychological world. For example, one of my favourites is a 2013 study from Harvard that tells us that when you can reframe the situation in your mind. Instead of telling yourself, I'm anxious about this, can you say, I'm excited. I'm excited to finally get to a resolution. I'm excited to show this person all the preparation I've done for our conversation.
Vien: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people make during negotiations?
Iconomopoulos: One of the biggest ones is we talk too much. People assume that the successful people are those slick, fast-talking sales guys in sharp suits. That is not the case.
Again, I go back to the title of the book. I chose Say Less, Get More for a reason. People will often talk themselves out of a deal if you just give them the space to do so. If you can be quiet, if you can train yourself to say less and you're uncomfortable doing that, but you know, you're doing it for a reason. Imagine how much more uncomfortable the other party is going to be.
What happens when we get uncomfortable is we start to fill that silence and people will give you information. Knowledge is power. I think we can all agree on that. When you think about it, the more you talk, the more knowledge you're giving them, the more power you're giving them. One of the biggest mistakes is simply, we do far too much talking. The other mistake that I think people often make is they only think about things from their own perspective.
Can you flip the perspective around? Can you think about things from their perspective? Can you go, here's what would make your objectives move further. Here's how I can be a member of the team that will help to move objectives X, Y, and Z forward in a more efficient way. Here's what I propose in order to achieve your objectives a lot faster. You're still getting what you want. You're thinking about that, but you're framing it up in a way that's going to make it sound more appealing to them.
Vien: In your book, you talk about both real power and perceived power. What are some things that accountants could do to increase their power going into a negotiation?
Iconomopoulos: Well, the perceived power bit starts with really just your attitude when you go in. How do you look when you are having this conversation? Whether it's in the same room, whether it's on a camera, whether it's on the phone, or even on an email. What are those things that you are doing that are subconsciously sending a message to the other person that you are confident in what it is that you are saying?
So your body language when we're live or when we can see each other has a lot to do with things. If you're hunched over a computer and they can't see you or you sound really quiet and they [say], "What did you say to me?" Those are the types of things that will signal to the other party that this person doesn't sound really confident in what they're saying. Perhaps I don't trust them, perhaps they are weak, and I can take advantage of them in this moment. It starts very much with that perception first.
Vien: What's a good tactic to take if you perceive that the person or people you are negotiating with are biased against you, or might be?
Iconomopoulos: Yeah, I'd say, I think we all fall into those types of situations from time to time as women. But even other minorities will find that kind of thing. For me, I see that as another example of knowledge is power. If you know that they are going to be biased, if you'd expect that they're going to say something stupid to you or behave in a way that isn't appropriate, being able to anticipate that is a very powerful thing because you can prepare for it.
You can actually practise, what am I going to say if and when they say this insulting thing? How am I going to manage that moment? For some people, it might be simply saying nothing at all. For some people, it's going to be asking a question. Like, I was called "little girl" once on a workshop. I could just stare them down and be really quiet, or I think in my case, I said something to the effect of, and how would my age change the lesson that I'm about to teach you? How would my age change the circumstances that we're about to work on together?
Instead of being reactive and saying something that can get you into trouble or something that you might regret, it's about taking that five seconds to just take a meditative breath, and either say nothing at all and let their ridiculousness linger and have other people recognise it, and now you get to be the poised one that is rising above it. That's often one of the easiest things to do, or it's about asking a question to challenge them on it.
Vien: Do you have any advice on how to develop that pause button?
Iconomopoulos: It takes practice, I will say. I hear a lot of people talking a lot about meditation. It's certainly become at the forefront of our minds during a very stressful time for many people. I'd say meditation can sound very intimidating to a lot of people. It might sound too woo-woo for a lot of folks. But it's really just taking a moment to take a breath. That breathing in for four, holding it for a little bit longer, and breathing out as slowly as possible can really help to calm your mind. It does change how your brain functions.
It has a halo effect as well. If you're going into a very difficult meeting, can you do that in the car before you get there? Before you turn your camera on, can you calm your mind so it's almost like you're lowering your blood pressure a little bit so it doesn't shoot up quite as quickly? There are studies that show us that even things like yoga and Pilates and running and things like that have a halo effect. It doesn't just calm you in that moment, but there's some lingering time where it also helps, so do something that you really enjoy.
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.