Over the past few weeks my company's negotiation muscles have received a workout. First we had a disagreement with a vendor about an invoice, and then we worked to hire a freelancer at a rate lower than her usual fee. Meanwhile, my assistant was negotiating with the phone company and asking the business next door to keep its construction noise to a minimum.
During this period, someone pointed out to me that children have better negotiating skills than most adults. Kids can be persistent, yet charming, and are not embarrassed to ask for what they want. In addition, when they hear the word "no," they tend to immediately look for a way to get a portion of what they want.
Those of us who work at home need to recapture some of our childhood negotiating acumen, or find another way to hone our negotiating talents. Haggling and conflict-resolution skills are key in the home office because working on your own ironically requires you to juggle a broad range of relationships, often without face-to-face interaction.
Use the techniques below to negotiate resolutions that work for you and the people around you.
? Orient yourself for a successful negotiation. The best negotiations result in both parties gaining at least part of what they want. A win-win resolution is more likely to stick and minimize bad feelings from the arbitration. Win-lose outcomes may seem acceptable to Americans because U.S. culture tends to support the emergence of a winner during negotiation. In other countries, such as Japan and Singapore, higher value is often placed on the collective good.
? Gain a clear understanding of the other person's objectives. In some cases you immediately know that the other party wants more money or a more lenient deadline and can create a plan based on this knowledge. When the other side's objectives are unclear, step one is to clarify needs. My approach is to ask people to be straightforward about what outcome will make them happy. Armed with this information, I can work to create a resolution that satisfies everyone involved.
? Be clear about what you are asking for. Equally as important as understanding the opposite point of view is helping the other person see your position. I add credence to my requests by explaining why certain objectives are so important to me. Be prepared to explain more than once why you need the outcome you seek.
? Communicate carefully. Subtle verbal and body language can make a difference in how your negotiation progresses. Spend more time listening than talking and make direct eye contact. Use the word "and" instead of "but." These actions will send signals that you are interested in the other party and are seeking common ground. Do what you can to underscore that the conflict is about the issues at hand and is not personal. People who sense this are more likely to let go of defensive attitudes.
? Make up for imperfect communication tools. When you use phone, e-mail, fax and other non-visual communication vehicles for a negotiation, you will need to step up your verbal and written communication skills. A lack of facial expressions, vocal intonation and other cues can result in a negotiation breakdown. Avoid this by being explicit in your writing about your interest in the other party's concerns and determination to find a mutually satisfactory resolution.
? Follow up. Whenever possible, follow up with the other party to point out the positive results of your agreement. For instance, if you worked to get a better price on manufacturing supplies, call the vendor after you receive the products and mention your satisfaction with the relationship.
At this time last week, I was riding horseback through the mountains of Arizona, vacationing at a ranch and taking a needed break from my home-based business. All business owners need vacation now and again, but those of us who work at home really need getaways because when we are at home, getting away from work is so difficult.
My vacation drill is pretty routine by now. The week before I leave I don't even really want to go because I feel like I have too much work and will miss opportunities if I leave. During my vacation I relax completely, and although I always call my home office a few times, I rarely worry about my business. When I return, I have a new perspective on my business and renewed energy for problem solving. I also resolve to take more time off because it is good for my business to have me refreshed and energized.
If you are starting up a new home-based business or are working extra hard because of the booming economy, it may be impossible for you to get away for a week-long vacation. But regardless of how hectic your schedule is, you can attain some of the benefits of a vacation, even if you cannot go out of town. A change of pace, a new experience or another type of breather from your routine can infuse you with at least a little of what a week away provides. Even breaks as short as two hours can reduce fatigue and help you retain or gain a sense of balance. Here are some ideas for "getting away" when you can't get away.
? Give something back. Volunteer work can be personally rewarding and often offers a new perspective on your concerns. Even people with limited free time can make a difference by spending a day in a soup kitchen or participating in a special event organized by a charitable foundation. For more information about needs in your area, contact the Volunteers of America, a non-profit organization, at (800) 899-0089.
? Think different. Spend an afternoon attending a community event that will motivate you to think in new ways. For instance, if you're a business consultant, go to a poetry reading. If you provide home repair services, attend an art exhibit. Changing your thought patterns will tap into cognitive skills that may not be challenged during your everyday activities. In addition, if the activity you choose is creative, you may find the inventiveness of others inspires you to find new solutions to old problems.
? Take a class. Enroll in a continuing education course to give your mind a break from solving work-related issues. When selecting a class, search for one that requires participation, such as cooking or sailing. Classes and seminars requiring only passive listening will not provide the same mental relief and you may soon find your mind wandering back to the office.
? Take a hike. Change the scenery by walking in a forest or park. This will encourage your mind and body to absorb a new set of stimuli, and therefore refresh your senses.
? Exercise. Revitalize sagging energy by scheduling regular workouts. Exercise regimens encourage discipline and goal setting. In addition, exercising with others can help you develop a social network. A workout as short as 30 minutes can revitalize you. Please don't say you don't have time. I know busy executives who have families to care for who make time to exercise. You can too.
? Work longer hours. Add an hour to your typical workday from Monday through Thursday, then leave at 1 p.m. on Friday for a long weekend. Or plan a short trip over a holiday weekend, when business contacts are likely to be away.
Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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