Instruction Manual for Winning Negotiation Line up
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Instruction Manual for Winning Negotiation Line up

Whether you’re fielding a large negotiation team or handling it all yourself, understanding and implementing the different roles required will help you deliver a great result. Kelly Harborne Head of Practice at The Gap Partnership explains why.

By Kelly Harborne

Head of Practice, The Gap Partnership

Instruction Manual for Winning Negotiation Line up

Imagine your favorite team sport – soccer, netball, hockey... whatever gets you excited – in which the players are not assigned a position. No shooters or center forwards; no defense, midfield, or wingers. Even, and quite possibly the most disastrously, no goalkeepers. Or if you’re not such a sports fan, picture instead of a management team with no CEO, CFO, CMO…and so on. I’m fairly certain the results would be chaotic. And although it’s stretching credibility to imagine such scenarios in the first place, I will never cease to be amazed at how often in the commercial world a negotiation team will fail to assign each other specific roles. It is just as remiss and with the same potential for a suboptimal result. 

In our negotiation training workshops, there is a pivotal moment in which group roles are explained, assigned, and practiced in case of study role plays. And things start to fall into place. If you are one of our alumni you will recall that there are four critical roles in a negotiating team: Leader, Spokesperson, Figures Person, and Observer.

  • The Leader is the manager and decision-maker.
  • The Spokesperson is the communicator and first line of contact.
  • The Figures Person is the commercial engine room, managing the numbers.
  • The Observer is the team’s eyes and ears, getting inside their head.

That’s all well and good if you have a team of four people or more, but the reality for most people is that they frequently negotiate alone or in teams of two people. So I’m going to focus on the four roles and consider two things – the activities of each role, and how we combine these activities when negotiating solo or with a single colleague. 

Let’s go back to first principles for a moment and understand why, as negotiators, we need a separation of activities. The simple fact is that humans are not very good at multitasking. While we can combine basic or well-practiced tasks that use unrelated mental and physical resources – for example listening to the news on the radio while driving – once you add in any degree of complexity, things start to get messy. The additional demands on the brain can result in interference with performance on one or more of the tasks. To put this in a negotiation context, if you’re trying to record proposals and work out what the numbers mean, you will find it challenging to observe the body language of your counterparty at the same time. (It’s worth noting at this point that it’s estimated that around 2.5% of the population are “supertaskers” who are better than the norm at multitasking, but to put it politely the chances are you’re not one of them).

The four negotiation roles can be categorized into these activities: Thinking, Talking, Calculating, and Watching, and Listening. Essentially, whether in a team or especially if you are alone, you should only be engaged in one of the Thinking, Talking or Calculating activities at any one time – although it’s certainly true that it is very difficult to watch and listen at the same time as you are calculating. 

The reason for this is one of quality control. I can only think about a decision I need to make if I am sure I have completed my calculations correctly. I can only communicate clearly if I am sure I have reached the right decision. I can only watch and listen once I can see the reaction to my communication. And I can only recalculate effectively if I have some form of reaction or response on which to base my recalculation. Contrary to some Hollywood-style portrayals of commercial negotiations, a really professionally conducted negotiation is a deliberate, even laborious process – not the most compelling spectator sport unless you are a bit of a negotiation obsessive like I am.

When we negotiate alone it is still a recommended mental discipline to consciously be aware of which activity we are presently performing and to focus on that activity until we have completed it and can move on to the next activity in the sequence.

So, when I am negotiating alone, I will first assume the role of Leader. I will introduce myself in tone and language which are consistent with the climate I want to create and make a short Statement of Purpose outlining what I want to achieve from the discussion. I will then consciously switch into a Spokesperson role and make a pre-prepared proposal or ask a question. As I do this, I have my head up with my eyes scanning those opposite and my ears pricked, watching and listening for a reaction as an Observer. At some stage, I will get a counterproposal, at which point I will give a brief response as Spokesperson before reverting to my Figures role to evaluate the commercial impact of their offer, before again slipping once more into Leader role to decide whether this is acceptable or whether I should formulate a further proposal, starting the cycle of activity again.


  • Aside from making the decisions and creating the required climate the Leader’s job is to manage the team.
  • Direct your Figure colleague on the kind of analysis you need or the kind of proposal you want to be formulated.
  • Instruct your Spokesperson on the line of questioning you want them to pursue. Use your Spokesperson as a shield – if you, as the ultimate decision-maker, engage in direct dialogue with the counterparty, you run the risk of being put under pressure which is not where a decision-maker wants to be. Political leaders will often send a spokesperson to make significant announcements because a spokesperson can legitimately refuse to answer journalists’ questions on the grounds of empowerment.
  • Whenever you know that your Spokesperson is about to make a significant or potentially deal-closing proposal, tell your Observer to be on their toes and watch the reaction.
  • It is not inappropriate for a Leader to make interventions but employ The Law of Scarcity and be selective. If you have been sitting for half an hour without saying anything and then you speak, your words carry more weight by invoking The Law of Authority.
  • If you adjourn or take a time-out, tell your counterparty what aspect of the deal you want them to focus on during the recess and what you expect to hear upon resumption in terms of a proposal.


  • Trust your colleagues. You may not understand the proposal your leader is giving you, but, they have had the time to think, access the numbers, and the support of their Figure person. Don’t undermine the proposal with an incredulous glance at your colleagues.
  • Build trust in early exchanges by offering up information. Make it obvious that you are taking them into your confidence. This creates a greater willingness for them to reciprocate and disclose information in return.
  • You can create subconscious empathy by “mirroring” the tonality, pace, volume, and non-verbal communication of your counter-party. People empathize with others who are like them so study your counterparty’s style and adapt your behavior accordingly.
  • Table “sample” proposals in early exchanges – along the lines of, “So, if we came back to you with a proposal seeking a longer contract in return for improved pricing, is that something you would listen to?” That gives you a clear steer on the proposal you need to work on and reduces potential resistance since they know what is coming.
  • Don’t sacrifice clarity for climate – if a message needs to be communicated, make sure it lands, even if they won’t like it. Climate is about trust, integrity, and credibility, not treading on eggshells. You can always repair any climate damage.


  • Have a few ready reckoners to hand – know the gross profit impact of an extra 100,000 units of volume.
  • Create proposals that automatically generate value through “cause and effect” – “For every additional 50,000 units we buy, we automatically receive an additional 1% discount”.
  • Create proposals that give options. This generates satisfaction because it affords the other side the chance to choose. They then think they are in charge but they are choosing from my menu.
  • Identify key variables which need to be progressed in the early stages – you can mop up some of the detail later.
  • Make sure you don’t trade away all the low-cost, high-value opportunities early on. The temptation is to make rapid progress but every negotiation has an endgame and it is important to retain some leverage to get the deal over the line.


  • Learn to read upside down.
  • Make sure you sit in a position where you can easily scan all the faces opposite without having to shift in your seat.
  • When a multivariable proposal is made, listen to which variable they comment on first. There is usually a reason for that.
  • Don’t watch their Spokesperson, everyone else is looking at them. Watch the Leader and the Figures guy – they know where the deal stands, the Spokesperson doesn’t.

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