Negotiations are delicate affairs—unless perhaps you’re US President Donald Trump, whose modus operandi seems to be walking out of summits, and who tweeted “No!” when China asked to renegotiate trade talks earlier this year.
Everyone else, though, can benefit from better tactics. Whether it’s settling a legal or business dispute, discussing salaries and contracts, or even bargaining with vendors at a farmer’s market, some conversations have to be handled with kid gloves.
Though the goal of negotiation may be to settle differences and reach agreement, every party understandably works for their own interests, and it’s difficult to achieve one’s desired outcome while maintaining good relations with everyone else. Some linguistic finesse is needed.
As the saying goes, “A good beginning is half the battle.” The way that one opens a negotiation sets the tone for the rest of the process. An ideal opening line should be diplomatic while making one’s agenda clear:
Thanks to everyone for making time for this meeting. Today we are going to discuss the schedule of our next cooperative project. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to share.
Fēicháng gǎnxiè dàjiā zài bǎimáng zhōng lái kāi zhège huì. Jīntiān wǒmen yào tǎolùn wǒmen xià yí gè hézuò xiàngmù de páiqī, dàjiā yǒu shénme xiǎngfǎ, qǐng chàngsuǒyùyán.
There’s some flexibility on what to do next—present your own position, thus starting off discussions on your own terms, or listen to the other party to discover their intentions. If you choose the first option, a useful phrase is 开门见山 (kāimén jiànshān, “Open the door to see the mountain”), meaning “cut to the chase”:
I’ll get right down to it. The design you sent us wasn’t accepted. I think you need to make some changes.
Wǒ jiù kāimén jiànshān le. Nǐmen zhīqián fā guòlai de shèjì fāng’àn méiyǒu tōngguò, wǒ juéde xūyào zuò yīxiē xiūgǎi.
If you decide to listen first, be sure to grill the other party on the details to make sure nothing detrimental to your agenda slips in:
A: I’d like to hear your views on the terms in our draft contract.
Wǒ xiǎng tīngting nín duì wǒmen zhè fèn hétong cǎo’àn lǐ gè xiàng tiáokuǎn de yìjiàn.
B: We think the delivery date is too late. And if possible, we hope that we can pay in installments.
Wǒmen juéde jiāohuò rìqī tài wǎn le. Lìngwài, rúguǒ kěyǐ, wǒmen xīwàng néng fēnqī fùkuǎn.
A: When do you think is the acceptable delivery date? If we can’t accept payment by installments, do you have any alternative proposal?
Nǐmen juéde nǎtiān jiāohuò kěyǐ jiēshòu? Rúguǒ wǒmen bùnéng jiēshòu fēnqī fùkuǎn, nǐmen yǒu qítā bèixuǎn fāng’àn ma?
The truth is, in spite of what CCTV News would have you believe, negotiations and collaborations are rarely “win-win.” Disputes, quarrels, and confrontation are unavoidable. Once a conflict occurs, as long as you’re not planning your own walk-out, you need to find a solution, not a fight:
Our criticisms are not personal. Everyone wants to do a good job.
Wǒmen de yìjiàn dōu bùshì zhēnduì gèrén de, dàjiā zhǐshì xiǎng bǎ gōngzuò zuòhǎo.
I understand your point, but I have my own difficulties.
Wǒ wánquán lǐjiě nǐ de lìchǎng, dànshì wǒ yě yǒu nánchu.
I think we both need to make some concessions.
Wǒ juéde wǒmen shuāngfāng dōu xūyào zuòchū yìxiē ràngbù.
If no compromise presents itself, then just make sure everyone calms down, and buy some time for the next round:
We share the same goal—to finish the project in time, and reduce the cost wherever possible. On this point, we fully trust each other. As for specific approaches, we can talk later.
Wǒmen de mùbiāo shì yízhì de—ànshí wánchéng xiàngmù, bìng jìn kěnéng jiéyuē chéngběn. Zài zhè yì diǎn shang, wǒmen chōngfèn xìnrèn bǐcǐ. Zhìyú jùtǐ de gōngzuò fāngfǎ, wǒmen kěyǐ yǐhòu jìxù tǎolùn.
Of course, your ultimate purpose is to defend your own interests and maximize the outcome. There is a reason ancient Chinese war books are considered standard reading in the business world. There are three useful tacks for negotiation, summarized in proverbs.
The first one is “诱之以利,” meaning “to lure someone by the promise of profit.” As another old saying goes: “In order to take, you must first give. (将欲取之，必先予之)”:
Our company is considering signing a long-term supply contract with you. Is it possible for you to give us some preferential terms?
Wǒmen gōngsī zhèng kǎolǜ hé guì gōngsī qiān yí fèn chángqī gōnghuò hétong. Nǐmen néngbunéng gěi wǒmen yìxiē yōuhuì tiáojiàn?
The second is “动之以情,” or “move someone with sincerity.” Though in most cases, theatrics and sob stories are not appropriate for the negotiating table, and people can see through flattery, sincere emotions do no harm. If you have no other bargaining chips, give this a go:
We have cooperated for ten years and have made so many great products together. Now, we are faced with some financial difficulties. I really hope you can do us a favor and pay us a little bit earlier.
Wǒmen hézuò shí nián le, yìqǐ tuīchū le zhème duō chénggōng de chǎnpǐn. Xiànzài wǒmen yùdào le yìxiē cáizhèng kùnnan, xīwàng nǐmen néng bāng wǒmen yí gè máng, tíqián yīdiǎnr fùkuǎn.
The last approach is risky—“胁之以威,” meaning “to threaten with consequences or bring pressure from a higher authority”:
If you insist on cutting costs, the quality of construction cannot be guaranteed. If safety issues arise, the consequences will be unthinkable.
Rúguǒ nǐmen jiānchí yào yāsuō chéngběn, gōngchéng zhìliàng jiù wúfǎ bǎozhèng. Yídàn chūxiàn ānquán wèntí, hòuguǒ bùkān shèxiǎng.
In some cases, you may need to bluff:
Frankly, your bidding price is much lower than my estimate. If you can’t raise it, I will be considering other offers.
Tǎnbái jiǎng, nǐmen gěichū de bàojià bǐ wǒ de yùqī dī hěnduō. Rúguǒ nǐmen zhǐnéng chū zhème duō, nà wǒ zhǐhǎo lìngzuò kǎolǜ le.
This method could backfire, though, so be sure you’re actually prepared to follow through with the consequences, or walk away if the other party calls your bluff. Not every negotiation can lead to an agreement. If there is no room for further discussion, don’t be afraid to stick to your bottom line, and end the talk.
We understand your position, but regret that we cannot accept your terms. Let’s call it a day, and we’ll try to figure out a solution another time.
Nǐmen de yìjiàn wǒmen yǐjīng liǎojiě le, hěn yíhàn wǒmen wúfǎ jiēshòu nǐmen de tiáojiàn. Wǒmen jīntiān jiù tán dào zhèli ba, wǒmen huíqù zài xiǎngxiang yǒu méi yǒu qítā fāng’àn.
I’m confident that you have seen our commitment to solving this problem after this discussion. But if you can’t accept our proposal, I am afraid we can’t provide a better offer.
Xiāngxìn tōngguò wǒmen de tǎolùn, nǐmen yǐjīng kàndàole wǒmen jiějué wèntí de chéngyì. Dànshì rúguǒ nǐmen bùnéng jiēshòu wǒmen de tí’àn, kǒngpà wǒmen yě wúfǎ gěichū gènghǎo de tiáojiàn le.
However, even if negotiations break down, you want to end on a cordial note, leaving room for everyone to come back to the table in the future—hence the boilerplate line:
We hope there will be opportunities to work with you again in the future.
Xīwàng wǒmen yǐhòu yǒu jīhuì hézuò.
“The Art of the Deal” is a story from our issue, “The Amusement Issue”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.