1: The trial is beginning. The defense attorney rises to give their opening statement.
They begin by mentioning everything their client is accused of. They list out all the weaknesses of their case.
The technique is called “taking the sting out,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.
And it applies to more than just the court of law.
To prepare for any negotiation, Chris recommends we begin by doing “an accusation audit.”
We write down every horrible thing our counterpart could say about us. Then, we share our list.
2: Anna, one of Chris’s students, was faced with a difficult negotiation with a company they had partnered with, on a government contract. She and her colleague Mark started by making a list of every negative charge ABC company could say about them.
“The relationship had gone sour long before, so the list was huge,” Chris notes. “But the biggest possible accusations were easy to spot.”
Which Anna highlighted in the first minutes of the negotiation: “We understand that we brought you on board with the shared goal of having you lead this work,” she said. “You may feel like we have treated you unfairly, and that we changed the deal significantly since then. We acknowledge that you believe you were promised this work.”
The ABC representatives nodded, so Anna continued. As she went on, she asked open-ended questions like, “What else is there you feel is important to add to this?”
Anna’s goal was to transform the negotiation from “us vs. them” to two organizations faced with a difficult situation from their government client.
“By labeling the fears and asking for input, Anna was able to elicit an important fact about ABC’s fears, namely that ABC was expecting this to be a high-profit contract because it thought Anna’s firm was doing quite well from the deal.”
Which was not true.
“This provided an entry point for Mark, who explained that the client’s new demands had turned his firm’s profits into losses, meaning that he and Anna needed to cut ABC’s pay further.”
At which point, Angela, one of ABC’s representatives, gasped.
“It sounds like you think we are the big, bad prime contractor trying to push out the small business,” Anna said, anticipating the other side’s likely reaction.
“No, no, we don’t think that,” Angela responded. Because of Anna’s acknowledgment, she was searching for common ground.
“With the negatives labeled and the worst accusations laid bare,” Chris writes, “Anna and Mark were able to turn the conversation to the contract.”
“It sounds like you have a great handle on how the government contract should work,” Anna said, labeling Angela’s expertise.
“Yes—but I know that’s not how it always goes,” Angela answered, signaling her pride in having her experience acknowledged.
3: Anna then asked Angela for guidance on how she would amend the contract so that everyone made some money. Anna acknowledged ABC’s situation while also shifting the responsibility for finding a solution to the smaller company.
Angela responded by saying there was no way to do so without cutting ABC’s worker count.
“Several weeks later, the contract was tweaked to cut ABC’s payout, which brought Anna’s company $1 million that put the contract into the black,” Chris writes.
But this wasn’t the biggest surprise.
After Anna had acknowledged that she had given Angela some bad news and that she understood how angry she must feel, Angela responded: “This is not a good situation but we appreciate the fact that you are acknowledging what happened, and we don’t feel like you are mistreating us.”
Action: In an upcoming negotiation or discussion, experiment with acknowledging all the bad things the other side could say about me or us.
Reflection: Take notice of how the other side responds.