Mastering Negotiation Skills Can Benefit Engineers

ISE Magazine July 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 7

By Dean Kaplan

Engineers tend to be both highly intelligent and master problem-solvers, but some can struggle to navigate the complicated, interpersonal dilemmas presented by high-stakes negotiations.

Logic that is helpful in solving an engineering issue, such as putting emotion aside and focusing on the evidence, can lead to serious mistakes in negotiations.

Despite the stereotypes of engineers working long hours alone, the complex problems faced by engineers today often require teams working together to solve. Sometimes these teams are spread out by distance and expertise and need to work together for years to solve a problem. It’s important that engineers learn and practice good negotiation skills.

As with anyone engaged in negotiations, some of the negotiation skills engineers need are:

  • Inquiry: The ability to ask questions
  • Active listening: The ability to listen to and under-stand someone else’s concerns
  • Confidence: The ability to effectively offer suggestions and solutions
  • Empathy: The ability to understand the goals, emotions and objectives of other people
  • Storytelling: The ability to present one’s own goals and objectives in a compelling manner

In most negotiations, all of these skills work together. For example, if you only ask questions but never offer potential solutions, you’ll appear indecisive and that will make negotiations difficult. On the other hand, if you only put forth confident opinions without asking questions, you’ll appear arrogant, which also makes negotiations difficult.

Let’s look at some hypothetical examples of how engineers use negotiation skills in their work.

Ask questions, listen for answers

During a design process for a new manufacturing system, Jane found herself in a non-stop discussion over materials. Every engineer involved in the discussion had a material he or she wanted to use. After several meetings with no resolution, Jane stopped suggesting her chosen material and instead asked: “What is the goal of the new system and how does it need to operate?” The question seems obvious, but once it is asked and answered, each of the materials suggested could be weighed against the goal.

The simple act of asking a question stopped a negotiation process that was stuck on each party confidently advocating for his or her own possible solution and instead began a collaborative process. If Jane had simply insisted on her own opinion instead of asking a question, the team would still be debating the material.

In another example, José and Steve are working on a project together in which they need to connect two portions of a machine. They have a disagreement about which process to follow to complete the connection. As the lead engineer, José could simply insist on his process, but instead he asks Steve to explain his objections. By using active listening to hear Steve’s explanation, José is able to answer his concerns and still carry out the procedure, saving both the process and his working relationship with Steve.

Empathy and storytelling

Engineers not only need to learn to negotiate with each other, they often need to negotiate with other departments in a company. Sometimes an engineer may be attempting to negotiate a technical solution to a problem with someone who doesn’t completely understand the issue. In these cases, storytelling and empathy can both be powerful tools.

For example, James is unhappy with the customer relationship management system his company uses. He asks Zoe to modify the system to work more like a previous system he used. However, James doesn’t understand that doing so will mean the CRM will no longer integrate with the company’s email system. When Zoe tries to tell him his request isn’t possible, he insists it is because he’s used a similar system.

Instead of trying to explain the technical difficulties with James’ request, Zoe uses analogies and stories to explain the situation. She then asks James questions about his specific problems with the CRM. By doing so, she can offer a solution that solves his problems while still allowing the system to integrate with the company’s email.

While many people believe negotiation skills are inborn, the truth is that, like any skill, negotiation can be taught. Even people who consider themselves “naturals” at negotiation often could use some training.

In my role as head of a collection agency, it’s important everyone on my team have excellent negotiation skills. I’ve found that teaching negotiation skills can be done in-house or using outside help. Bringing in an outside organization to train allows everyone, even supervisors, to gain from the training and can be a refreshing change of pace for employees. There are organizations that specialize in negotiation training, but you might also want to think outside the box to create a fun experience for the staff.

For example, local theater or comedy groups often offer negotiation and storytelling training. Escape rooms some-times offer corporate events that stress negotiation skills. Make sure to fully research any company offering to teach negotiation skills and ask for references and recommendations from others.

If you choose to conduct negotiation training in-house, refreshing or teaching these skills doesn’t have to be an all-day event. Simple and fun exercises such as a game of charades can be worked into regular company or team meetings to help demonstrate skills just by using nonverbal cues.

Another popular activity is a version of arm wrestling. Place pairs of workers in the classic arm-wrestling pose, but don’t use the word “arm wrestle.” Tell the players they get a point each time the back of the other person’s hand touches the table. Their goal is to get as many points as possible individually; the other player’s score does not matter.

Some pairs will realize that instead of wrestling, they can work together by flipping back and forth so they each gain more points. Others will engage in arm wrestling, thus earning fewer points. This quick exercise demonstrates two important concepts of negotiation: primarily the need to rethink your assumptions (some players assume the way to win is to make sure the other person loses); and secondly, the need to work together toward a solution.

To help employees think of storytelling as a skill, you can take stories from the news, from your own life or from inspirational stories and use them to demonstrate both storytelling and other negotiation skills such as empathy, trust and flexibility. Again, this doesn’t have to take long and can be shared as part of a weekly email or company meeting.

You can also ask team members to bring in their own examples of stories that show negotiation skills. This is a great way to learn more about your team members and let them learn more about each other, strengthening the key negotiation skills of empathy and understanding and creating a closer-knit workforce.

It may take strong persuasion skills of your own to convince members of a busy engineering team they need to think about and develop negotiation skills. However, doing so will benefit your team, your company and the engineers’ individual careers as well.