Negotiation training tips I wish I’d known at university

A man and a woman shaking hands at a business meeting.
A man and a woman shaking hands at a business meeting.

A high proportion of graduates experience some difference between classroom knowledge and real-world experiences. The theories you studied in class don’t always translate into practical living. One significant difference is the lack of negotiation training at university versus the necessity of negotiation skills in life beyond university.

After graduating from university, I used my savings from part-time jobs to enrol in London negotiation training. I wanted to polish up my interview and negotiation skills for my job search. The negotiation tips I discovered were invaluable.

If I had known at university what I’ve since learned through training and experience, my student life could have been very different.

Here are a few tips I wish I’d known when I was studying at university.

Nurture active listening skills

GIF: To hear, one only has to listen.

University students are mostly people in their late teens and early 20s, brimming with ideas and full of enthusiasm. Being young and keen to be heard, most university students are yet to master the art of active listening. It takes a lot of willpower to really listen to others and not jump in with your opinion.

Students can make the mistake of viewing listening as a passive skill that holds no sway during heated debates and negotiations. How wrong that view can be.

After graduation, I came to realise that active listening can be even more potent than rushing to be heard. As an active listener, I use my listening skills to decipher the fuller meaning of the message.

As a student, I processed most of what I heard as either instruction or some impersonal message. If I was talking to a lecturer, I was probably receiving instructions or seeking clarification on past instructions. Most of the responsibility for my receiving the message, my actions, and my learning was someone else’s responsibility. At best, my learning was a shared responsibility.

With active listening skills, I now take full responsibility for my comprehension of ideas, my learning, and my growth.

If I had further developed my active listening skills at university, I would probably have had better luck in my personal life back then as well as in my academic endeavours. I still cringe when I think of the many awkward conversations and arguments, I triggered on dates that resulted from not truly listening to my date.

Win-win is an achievable ideal

GIF: #Winning with a man flying through the sky

In my university days, I associated negotiations with confrontation. Most students learn that negotiations don’t have to end with a winner and a loser. With the inexperience of youth, I tended to avoid confrontational situations, where I should instead have negotiated a better outcome. For me, this was because I would often feel unevenly matched against others with more experience.

Negotiation trainers emphasise that the most effective joint agreements are not zero-sum. Deal-making is not necessarily confrontational. Instead, people can work together to create mutually beneficial agreements. Negotiators don’t have to be oppositional in getting what they want; they can work to create more value than what was initially on the table.

Embracing a win-win mentality has transformed how I communicate with others. Instead of viewing negotiations as confrontational, I now see opportunities for value creation. Instead of viewing others as unevenly matched, I try to find points of value exchange even with more experienced negotiators.

For example, in the restaurant job I had while at university, I could have negotiated to work in an administrative role instead of waiting tables. Not yet having direct experience in admin or negotiating with bosses generally, I balked at negotiating what I really wanted.

In retrospect, I know that just entering a discussion with my boss could have resulted in a favourable outcome for both of us. Not negotiating at all pretty much guaranteed maintaining the status quo.

If I had found the nerve to negotiate and explained how the restaurant could gain from the skills I was learning at university, maybe I could’ve added some great early-on experience to my CV.

Research is crucial

GIF: Woman aggressively holding up her research with the caption

When I was a student, research seemed like a drab chore that I would do anything to get out of. Research and preparation make up a ratio of 1:1 to 1:5 of the deal-making process. If you want a positive outcome, it’s important to put in the time and effort.

Take the time to research who you’re trying to make a deal with. Learn what makes the other negotiator tick. If you can find people who have previously worked with the other negotiator, try to get some insights into the negotiator’s motivations. Some points to consider are:

  • How are other stakeholders measured and rewarded, and how can you sell this deal in to align with their rewards?
  • What are the perceived risks associated with this deal, and how can you assure your stakeholders that accepting your proposal reduces these risks?
  • Why are other stakeholders taking a particular stance or position?
  • What are the most important elements of the agreement?
  • What value are they willing to sacrifice, or what price are they willing to pay, to secure what is important to them?
  • How much are you willing to give up in exchange for what you want?
  • What are the hidden needs and preferences that may affect the agreement?

Deal with difficult situations

GIF: Moss from the IT Crowd with the caption I'll just walk away

In joint agreements, it’s almost impossible for you to get your way 100% of the time. On occasion, you may have to concede more than you prepared to. There are times when all your offers might be turned down. In some extreme cases, discussions may break down into confrontational chaos.

When times are tough, that’s when negotiation training can salvage your position. When an agreement can’t be reached, you can use your persuasion skills to restore calm and repair broken relationships.

When there is nothing more to say, you will likely need the strength to walk away. Regardless of how much you want a deal to happen, walking away should probably always be part of your arsenal.

At university, it would have been great to know that I could opt out of negative situations. Like when my housemate and his friends kept interrupting my studies with impromptu parties in the middle of exam season. I should have talked to my housemate, but instead, I faked a smile and opened a drink.

Knowing when to walk away is one skill that would have saved me quite a few embarrassments – walking away might have even been the better option for some of those awkward dates.

Negotiations outside university

You can learn and master negotiation skills over time. Since uni, I have used my negotiation skills to improve many areas of my life. When I moved to a new flat, I successfully negotiated better lease terms with my new landlord. My first major purchase was a car which I got for 15% less than the tag price.

GIF: Bulldog wearing glasses at a computer. Caption

Best of all, negotiation skills have improved my relationships. Not to mention, I now have the dexterity to avoid arguments at family gatherings without being a pushover!