The Value of Role Playing in Negotiation

We have had the privilege of assisting major companies all over the world with our Win Wisely™ approach to negotiation. The principles we teach are far from theoretical: they were forged from practical experience gained in all kinds of negotiations involving all types of participants. This includes everything from basic buy-sell transactions to complex, high-stakes negotiations in business and technology conducted by lawyers, salespeople and executives. Each of them needed a methodical approach to forging better deals.

We routinely hear from our clients. They describe how the teams we have trained are able to put their learning to immediate effect. One reason is that all our workshops attendees practice what we teach, often with real negotiation opportunities. Learning needs to be coupled with application to gain maximum advantage. From the military to sports to the performing arts, the value of practice and training is undeniable. Negotiation is no different, and one of the best ways to maximize negotiation training is to role play.

For example, people understand, both on paper and in our sessions, why it is important not to make unprincipled concessions during negotiations. But humans aren’t machines that apply rules from learning. It’s not until you practice these principles conversationally that you reinforce application of the rules, learn to adapt to the unexpected, and improve your results consistently.

Demonstration of Principle

One valuable application of role play is to illustrate how to apply a negotiation principle in conversation. In this situation, you and your teammates will construct or follow a detailed scenario that illustrates the value of a particular concept.

Let’s take the principled concessions example from an earlier blog post; in short, this concept is underpinned by K&R’s “Terms Cost Money; Somebody Pays the Tab (Bill)” and “Concessions Easily Given Appear of Little Value” principles. Merely giving something away because the other side asks for it—without tying the concession to a credible business rationale—cheapens your offering and degrades your position overall.

That sounds like common sense, but you’ll get better at applying it if you practice with your teammates, constructing and solving a hypothetical puzzle based on real scenarios in which Side A will ask Side B for unexpected concessions. By having to reason through your responses in a conversational environment, you’ve just become an athlete that has trained in your sport as opposed to just reading about one. This is a critical distinction, and it’s why we conduct structured role plays as often as possible with our negotiation training clients. During this phase of our sessions, we often “see the lights come on” as client teams wrestle with our sample scenarios. The role play creates a heightened awareness of the principles in question and lays the foundation for improved application in their next negotiation.

Situational Preparation and Practice

Another important application of negotiation role play is preparation for a particular real-life situation. Thorough preparation is a cornerstone of K&R training. Good negotiators put in hard work before the first negotiation is convened, examining the other team’s business in detail, considering both role- and company-based perspectives that might better prepare them to discover what the other team values and what their priorities are—all of which more quickly leads to heightened credibility and leverage.

During this kind of role play, you will divide an internal team into groups representing your company and the buyer or seller with whom they will negotiate. This is an opportunity to ask the hard questions and find out where you may have critical gaps in your knowledge. You will be forced to consider carefully what the other side’s motives may be. You may also discover better ways to structure the negotiation process, pick your teams and assign roles. This will lead to improved advance research (which brings its own benefits) and decreased likelihood that you and your team will be blindsided by nasty surprises that could be avoided with a bit of preparation.

Whether to illustrate a principle or to prepare for a critical deal, role playing is extremely valuable for the negotiators that want to win. Practice doesn’t always make perfect. But with it, your chances of reaching a favorable deal increase exponentially.