Negotiating with counterparts you don’t know: What to do if you don’t know who you are negotiating with?

Negotiating with counterparts you don’t know: What to do if you don’t know who you are negotiating with?

Negotiating with counterparts

The other day, during a negotiation coaching session, I was quite taken aback by the response I got when I asked: ‘Who is going to be your counterpart at your next negotiation?’

The answer was: ‘I don’t know, I won’t find out until we talk’. Because my client was negotiating ‘with a company’.

The situation itself is not that unusual: We often find ourselves in a situation where we don’t know the negotiating partner yet. Examples from my previous work experience: salary packages, contract negotiations, framework agreements for cooperations, complex projects as part of transformation processes.

What astonishes me, and what I find particularly alarming with regard to ensuring a successful outcome of negotiations, is the following line of thought:

  • I will be negotiating with a company.
  • I will not get to know my negotiating partner until we talk.

You NEVER negotiate with just a company.

I think it is important for you to realise that you are ALWAYS negotiating with one or several people. Initially, they may be unfamiliar, and they may also be replaced as negotiations proceed. But first and foremost, they are always PEOPLE.

This realisation is essential for two reasons:
1) It takes pressure off of you – especially if the counterpart you are negotiating with is a powerful government player (ministry, government agency, court, state-owned company), a large, “famous” company or a notable law firm. This changes the way you see your counterpart’s status.)

2) Whatever the “internal policy” or the GTCs – one counterpart may be more open than the other, which is why your outcome may vary, depending on the person you are dealing with.

What to do if you don’t know your negotiating partner yet?

‘What should I keep in mind, if I don’t know my counterpart?’

‘What should I do, if the other side unexpectedly shows up outnumbering me?’

‘How do I react if the other side keeps sending different people to each round of negotiations?’

These are the questions my clients ask me during coaching sessions. It’s a good idea to ask yourself these questions BEFORE negotiations begin. Because that is precisely what you need to prepare for!

So, what can you do specifically?

1) Preparation: Get as much information as possible before negotiations begin.

Consult with your contact at the institution with whom you will be negotiating before negotiations begin. Ask specifically:
• Who is your counterpart?
• How many people will be at the negotiation table with you?
• What are their positions?
• What is their role in the negotiation process?
This will help put you in the right frame of mind and be prepared. Plus, it also signals interest and shows that you are taking the negotiations very seriously.

2) On site: Build bridges to each negotiating partner.

It is especially important to build a rapport with small talk when you don’t know your counterpart yet. Engage in conversation: Do you have anything in common? Be open and attentive, ask questions. Try to create a flow of conversation even before negotiations begin.

If several people are in attendance at the negotiation, it is important to treat each one of them with equal respect. Every participant has a good reason to be there. At first you won’t know who wields what influence in the decision-making process. If you approach each negotiating partner with respect, there is a good chance that you will be able to build trust and thus lay the groundwork for a positive negotiation experience. Appreciation is a basic human need stemming from the desire to be recognised and respected.

3) During negotiations: Stick to your goal and your strategy.

Unfamiliar counterparts can really take you by surprise: Because they act differently than you expected or because they are replaced – perhaps several times throughout the negotiations. Be conscious of the fact that the structure of the negotiations may change or that they may play out differently from what you originally imagined.

Most importantly: Keep your eyes on the goal and leave your ego at the door. You have devised a strategy and a game plan. Surprises may well be orchestrated diversionary tactics. Don’t take the bait and stay your course.

Would you like help getting ready for your next negotiations? Would you like to prepare professionally and enter into your negotiations with a well-thought-out strategy? I would be happy to walk this path together with you: I will coach you before negotiations begin and am also available as a partner to stand by your side even in difficult negotiations. I look forward to supporting you on your path to success!

You can reach me at: or +436602400135.

Your Raluca Ionescu

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