Three maxims for successful negotiation

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If you are a fan of the show “Seinfeld,” you will remember an episode where George concludes that every single decision he made and every single approach he took in his past, was wrong. Every gut instinct he had always led him to disaster. So he incorporates a new philosophy: if every single thing that he had ever done was wrong, then the opposite must be right. And from that point forward, instead of doing what he would normally do, he does the exact opposite. Of course things work out very well for him. He gets a new girlfriend, he gets a new job, and his life becomes quite blissful (for a while).

Sometimes, in order to be persuasive, businesspeople tend to argue and try to prove others wrong, which is the exact opposite of what you should do.  In fact, those arguing will be very detailed in pointing out why other’s beliefs are wrong so they give in.  This usually doesn’t work very well, and then you just have a battle on your hands that isn’t needed.

Negotiation Maxim #1:  “Great negotiators never argue with reasons; they argue the facts.”

What are you negotiating? Negotiations are for cooperation. And when negotiating for cooperation, the very best negotiators never argue with people’s reasons; they argue with facts. 

When you argue with someone’s reasons, you are trying to prove them wrong. In fact, most people believe in order to convince someone you’re right, you have to show them that they are wrong.  It is just a natural response. It’s the old “let me show you that you are wrong so that you will see that I am right” impulse. 

Negotiation Maxim #2: “You never have to prove anyone wrong; you only have to prove yourself right.” 

So what do great negotiators do with people’s reason if not argue?  Well, like George, try the opposite.

The opposite of proving someone wrong is to simply acknowledge where they are coming from. Effective communicators use the tool of acknowledgement to gain cooperation and save time.

In the event you are trying to be persuasive and gain someone’s cooperation, use these three steps:

            1. Ask why they don’t want to cooperate

            2. Acknowledge their reasons as valid

            3. Return to the facts

Negotiation Maxim #3: “People will consider what you have to say, to the exact degree you demonstrate you understand their point of view.”

Here is an example. Mike works at a department store in the customer service area. His main job is to deal with people who want to get a refund for a product that did not meet their expectations or did not work properly. Rhonda is a recent customer who has brought in an item to return. 

Mike: Okay, Rhonda, in order to process this return, all I need to do is get a statement from you on what was wrong with the product or how it didn’t meet your expectations.  

Rhonda: I don’t want to give you that.

Mike: Well, why not?

Rhonda: Because, you will just use it against me.

Mike:  Why would I use that against you? That doesn’t make any sense.

Notice how Mike immediately tried to show Rhonda she was wrong? Mike should remember three important things:


  • People will consider what you have to say; to the exact degree you demonstrate you understand their point of view.
  • Great negotiators never argue with reasons; they argue the facts.
  • You never have to prove anyone wrong; you only have to prove yourself right.


Here is how Mike might have handled it.

Mike:  Okay, Rhonda, in order to process this return, all I need to do is get a statement from you on what was wrong with the product or how it didn’t meet your expectations. 

Rhonda: I don’t want to give you that.

Mike: Okay, can I ask why?

Rhonda: Because, you will just use it against me.

Mike: You know, Rhonda, if you don’t want to give me a statement about the product and why you’re returning it; because you are concerned that I am going to use it against you, then I can certainly understand why you don’t want to give me a statement. That makes sense. 

I just want to let you know that the purpose of the statement is not to use the information against you. In fact, the reason I need the statement is to document the file to be sure that you do get a full refund and that you do get everything that you are entitled to. If you’ll give me a statement of facts, I will be able to process your return and you can be on your way.

Did you see how Mike took the time to acknowledge Rhonda’s reasons and skillfully return to the facts at hand?

Notice what Mike did in this case. He completely reduced Rhonda’s uncooperativeness by acknowledging it. Notice he did not agree with it, and notice he did not say, “yes, you are right.” He simply acknowledged where Rhonda was coming from. He called the customer a reasonable person. She’s reasonable for the way she feels. The fact that Mike took the time to tell this customer that she was a reasonable person for the way she feels is going to allow her to change her mind (which, of course, is all he wanted in the first place).

Stop trying to prove other people wrong, and stick to proving yourself right. It’s easier and a whole lot less stressful.

Carl Van is a professional public speaker and business course designer. He is president and CEO of his own international training company. His new book, “Gaining Cooperation” is available on For more information, (504) 393-4570 or

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