Managing negotiations: arguing better 

A common topic on negotiation courses is the appropriate combination of emotions, tactics, and interests. Sometimes, an idealised and overly collaborative image of negotiation situations is presented when, actually, it is essential to deal with emotional tensions and, in particular, to avoid being manipulated by the other party. Gavin Kennedy, John Benson, and John McMillan approach their book Managing Negotiations: How to Get a Better Deal from this “realistic” perspective, where a chapter is devoted to the negotiation stage of arguing better.

The authors start by asserting that people negotiate because they have or believe they have a conflict of rights or interests with the other party. Most negotiation scenarios occur in mixed situations of cooperation and conflict, in which the parties want something from the other party that they cannot achieve on their own. This defines the Zone of Possible Agreement -ZOPA- between the parties’ BATNAs -Best Alternative to Not Negotiating-.

People with different interests argue. When interests close to their heart are threatened, most people know how to argue, and even anyone can become emotional. It is for this reason that we should be concerned about those who avoid speaking up because little or nothing of what they value has been threatened. While some people say they don’t have to argue, others admit they must debate or discuss. This is enough.

Regardless of their name, Kennedy, Benson, and McMillan have chosen to call this phase of negotiation argument.Opening, Presentation, and Exchange are alternative ways of describing this stage. However, the authors opt for the term argument since it indicates that both parties are involved. Although the word usually suggests emotional conflict, it can also mean a rational presentation of the reason for doing or not doing something.

Each side gives reasons why they believe something is necessary or attempts to show by reasoning why something is true. They will discuss these conclusions and try to persuade each other through reasoning.

Improving behaviour

Eliminating the habit of interrupting your opponent from your behaviour is one of the most straightforward and most beneficial steps to improve your negotiating performance. People who interrupt someone are essentially telling them to “shut up.” (“You can’t talk while I’m interrupting you”). Naturally, the person receiving this message resents it, and before long, there is shouting between some parties during the negotiation; shouting, including insults, can be expected. The other is treated without respect.

Negative discussions reinforce your opponent’s initial inhibitions, which prevent avenues of negotiation from opening and sometimes prevent agreement on an issue, even if the deal is beneficial to both parties.

Constructive behaviour

The remedy is quite simple: Listen more than you talk. Now, that’s easier said than done. However, this alone is not enough. Positive listening behaviour must be matched by positive speaking behaviour. When speaking, be sure to use time effectively. One way to do this is to ask open-ended questions for your opponent to explain and develop their case.

Your opponent is not prepared to explain everything to you, nor can he be willing to explain anything about his limit position. He will try to accept that his opening position is his limit. As a result, parties who are in an opening position can easily get into a useless and fruitless conversation. You should not focus too much on the issue on the opening positions. Therefore, as much as possible, let us know your position through questions of clarification and explanation. For more information, you may inadvertently disclose your commitment to your position and the likely routes you are preparing to move forward.

Synthesising is always beneficial, especially when the issues are numerous and complex. It also eliminates confusion and negative arguments. “Let’s summarise what you are asking” is a positive action and helps refocus negotiations. No matter how absurd or ambitious your demands are, it gives the opponent the feeling that they are at least being listened to with respect.

Constructive feedback

Your answer to the other side is what your opponent can do for you. It is to give your opponent information about your position. If you have extracted data from your opponent in the way suggested above, you can better respond to his position and explain yours.

Settings for an argument:


Interrupting, pointing out, attacking, blaming, being too smart, talking too much, shouting, sarcasm, threats.


Listening, clarifying questions, summarising issues as a matter of fact.

Asking to justify your case point by point means being attentive to the signs.

Not being committed to your proposal and your explanations.

Testing your commitment to your position-analysing clues about your priorities.

Seeking and giving information – be wary of unintentional signals.

To successfully manage negotiations, it is essential to anticipate and prepare for the argument or dispute stage, where the parties present and discuss their rationale, interests and positions to persuade each other. Avoiding attitudes that can hinder effective communication and instead encourage constructive behaviours is crucial. Doing so allows you to negotiate and discuss more effectively, leading to better outcomes.

Insisting on using objective criteria

The fourth rule of Fisher and Ury’s Harvard Negotiation Project Method is based on the relevance of principled agreements and not giving in to pressure. Negotiations should be arenas for developing good arguments, and negotiators should be open to reason but closed to threats.

In the book Getting Yes. How to negotiate without giving in, Fisher and Ury establish that negotiations aim to reach intelligent and fair agreements, and a good way to achieve this is to turn to established principles, precedents, or community practices. These have an unusual power of attraction when the parties must reach an agreement.

There are two questions to ask at this point: “How do you develop objective criteria?” and second, “How do you use them in negotiation?” On the first question, Fisher and Ury consider that objective criteria need to be independent of what each party wants to achieve and need to be legitimate and practical. These criteria would fulfil an anchoring function in the negotiation, and their legitimacy would be independent of the parties.

Here, it is worth reflecting on what the philosopher Jon Elster has called the civilising force of hypocrisy, where the most powerful party defends arguments with the language of impartiality, where, in fact, it appeals to its own interests. Elster believes that, despite everything, this exercise of turning arguments into the language of fairness favours minorities.

The Harvard Method of Negotiation holds that each issue should be framed as a joint search for an objective criterion. To achieve this impartiality of the method, it is crucial to insist on sharing the search. The classic example is two people who want to share a cake. The unbiased method is for one to split the cake and the other to choose the piece they like best. This guarantees agreement with the final split.

Negotiations tend to be more complex and usually incorporate the price dimension. In the joint search for an objective criterion, a relevant question may be asked about the theory behind the price. In sales and purchases, the price theory is usually based on the various alternative offers and demands on the market, in addition to the specific proposal of the other party. This increases or decreases the parties’ bargaining power and gives arguments for their possible demands.

What is relevant is to build a scope for deliberation with the other party to see the arguments for or against each possibility. Fisher and Ury recommend “reason and be open to reasoning about which principles are more appropriate”. Talking about principles, which underlie positions, has greater persuasive power. Negotiators must be open to reasoned persuasion on the merits of each view.

This approach to reaching intelligent and impartial agreements is an attractive alternative to negotiations based on positions, threats or misinformation. Fisher and Ury argue that “never yield to pressure, only to principle.” The best way to get the other party to do something is not by forcing them, but by convincing them with good arguments in what sense the required action is also in their interest.

From this perspective, negotiations are areas of persuasion that would be based on the combination of two premises: a) Being open to reason; b) Insistence on a solution based on an objective criterion.

This is the last rule of the Harvard Method of Negotiation. Fisher and Ury’s approach allows negotiations to be approached from a constructive and cooperative point of view, where it is considered that reaching a good agreement is a joint task of both parties where the various possibilities should be explored well and on the arguments behind the interests of the parties deliberated. Sometimes, obtaining the yes is not a conquest in enemy territory but a more cooperative task to lay the foundations of mutual benefits.