From Conflict to Collaboration: Human-Centered Contract Negotiation Strategies


Key Takeaways:

  • Find a common connection between you and the other party to help break down barriers that hinder collaboration.
  • Take the time to understand the underlying motivations of the other party.
  • Approach each interaction with an open mind and a willingness to learn from the unique experiences and perspectives of the other party.

From Conflict to Collaboration: Human-Centered Contract Negotiation Strategies by Rhondda Coleman

Having navigated many challenging contract negotiations, I’ve noticed that when they break down, the reasons are often non-legal. The key is to remember that we are negotiating with three-dimensional human beings. Establishing a human connection, looking at their underlying motivations, and keeping an open mind toward the other party are three essential tools that I bring into the negotiation room regularly as a commercial attorney, enabling me to achieve successful outcomes.

The Power of Connection

I recently negotiated a multimillion-dollar technology consulting agreement with a Fortune 500 food company. Counterparty counsel was digging in his heels on several issues on each turn of the document. We finally reached a stalemate that required us to talk live.

During the meeting, I learned that he had recently taken his daughter on a college tour. Instead of going straight to the negotiation, I instead asked, “What colleges are you touring? It’s exciting to go on this journey with our kids, isn’t it?” He replied, “Oh, yeah, you have kids?” I said, “Three! Two in high school and one in college.”

Suddenly, I turned into a human being, not an adversary keeping him from getting what he wanted. We connected and formed mutual respect for one another through our commonality as parents who want the best for our kids. After we recognized that, the negotiation proceeded smoothly with us negotiating more as collaborators than as competitors.

I love moments like these. Finding oneness in myself and another person reminds me that we are all people with ordinary goals and aspirations, even though we are not the same. Finding a common connection between you and others helps to break down barriers that hinder collaboration. In negotiations, there are many opportunities to do this if you listen closely and remain open. 

Underlying Motivations

I once led the negotiation of a multi-million dollar cloud services agreement opposite the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Legal Officer (CLO) of a mid-sized company. We had resolved most issues, but the company insisted on unlimited liability for data protection although industry standards did not recommend it. We were at a point where I was sure that there was nothing more for the company to be concerned about, but they continued to push back.

I gradually realized that the CLO seemed to understand and agree with my position, and that the CTO was driving the push. This was a red flag, and I probed to find out why.

It turned out that the company had recently suffered a data breach, and his board was clear that it couldn’t happen again. What he didn’t say, but I was able to infer, was that his job was in jeopardy if there was another breach on his watch. He wasn’t an attorney, so he didn’t care much about industry-standard legal positions. He just knew he needed to reassure his board and keep his job.

Once I understood that the CTO’s underlying motivations were based on fear, I was able to address his concerns. I reassured him that we were taking the necessary precautions in protecting his customer’s data and extending him the maximum protections allowed in the contract. We closed the deal. Taking the time to obtain clarity around the underlying motivations of your counterparty can help you get through an impasse in the negotiation.

Keeping an Open Mind

Leading a negotiation with bias can alienate your counterparty and drive a wedge between the  negotiating parties during the negotiation. As a woman of color, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten on a call with counterparty counsel who assumes that I am not the lead attorney on the call or an attorney at all. It is only when I tell them about my credentials, that I am accepted as a true negotiation adversary. This uphill battle to establish myself as an expert can be exhausting!

Because they led with bias, they alienated me or made me less amenable to collaborate. It could take a bit of work for both parties to get back to a neutral position of openness and acceptance.

Embracing different viewpoints fosters empathy, creativity, and constructive dialogue which helps facilitate much better resolutions. I recommend getting to know your negotiation partners through online research (LinkedIn is a great resource) and using inclusive language and communication styles. Challenge yourself to suspend judgment and avoid making assumptions about others based on superficial characteristics or preconceived notions.

Recognizing the humanity in the other party makes for a more successful result.  Finding those magical common connections, looking for underlying motivations, and keeping an open mind can help you navigate complex contract negotiations more effectively. These essential tools not only enhance your professional interactions but also lead to a more successful and enjoyable negotiating experience.

Learn More: Listen to Rhonda Coleman’s podcast where ambitious women come and share their authentic stories and pearls of life wisdom in a nurturing space.

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