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    Negotiating for Success:  Basic Stages

    Everyone negotiates. We negotiate with family members about how to spend vacation time; we negotiate with friends about how to pick up the tab for dinner; we negotiate with contractors about when to come to the house for a delivery or repairs. Physicians negotiate with patients when discussing alternatives of medical versus surgical therapy or, often times, no therapy. Scientists negotiate for time and space to conduct experiments. All of us negotiate for salary and job responsibilities. While each of these examples has a different level of risk and impact on the outcome, each requires basic communication skills to be effective.

    Richard Shell, in his book, Bargaining for Advantage (Penguin Books 1999) defines negotiation as an interactive communication process that may take place whenever we want something from someone else or another person wants something from us. Shell describes the process in four stages: Preparation, Exchanging Information, Bargaining, and Closing and Commitment. This article explores the four phases using examples from common interactions of faculty negotiating for new positions in medical schools.


    Dr. Steven Blum, in his instruction on negotiation during this year’s AAMC Executive Development Series reiterates: You will be a better negotiator if you prepare thoroughly. Simple advice, but worth emphasizing. Preparation includes researching standards and principles by which negotiating parties may reach common ground. Preparation includes knowledge of your own values on the issue being negotiated as well as knowledge of the perceived needs and values of the other parties involved in the discussion. It is important to be aware of your own bargaining style as well as that of the other party.

    Exchanging Information

    This is the single most important stage of negotiation. In 1978, a study of English labor and contract negotiators engaged in actual transactions showed that successful negotiators asked twice the number of questions and spent over twice the amount of time acquiring and clarifying information than did average negotiators. (Referenced in Shell, Bargaining for Advantage).

    Negotiating behavior Skilled Average
    Questions, as % of all negotiating behavior 21.3 9.6
    Active listening: Testing for understanding 9.7 4.1
    Active listening: Summarizing 7.5 4.2
    Total information exchange 38.5 17.9

    Many observational studies since 1978 have confirmed the importance of these basic communications skills in effective negotiation. Henry Ford gave advice on such communication: “If there is any one secret of success” he said, “it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” Why are communication skills so important in this particular kind of interaction? Shell surmises, “Most people are so grateful to have an attentive audience that they take little notice of your tactful probing until they suddenly feel the urge to get a few answers themselves. By then the effective negotiator has the information he or she needs to frame just the right responses.”

    When Dr. Timothy Johnson investigated the position as chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, he interviewed a variety of decision-makers within the department and the medical school. The result of the conversations and his reflection upon what possible to build in the medical school was an 18-page vision and planning document. This document reflected the visions and possibilities of the department and the medical school and required very little negotiation to reach agreement because of the shared interests and common ground for those with whom he would eventually develop the vision. And how did he discover the shared interests and the potential for building a great department? Through inquiry, listening, clarifying, and developing shared interests.


    Bargaining is the stage that most people associate with negotiation. However, this stage alone is NOT negotiating. It begins with an exchange of terms, an opening of the discussion of a “deal.” Dr. Steve Blum teaches AAMC EDS participants to delay this stage as long as reasonable, but to recognize when it begins. He teaches, “As soon as a number or term is mentioned by one party, you have begun to move out of information exchange and into bargaining.” In negotiations that have proceeded well through the stage of information exchange, this transition occurs smoothly as a natural extension of how to enact the ideas that have emerged. If exchange is done effectively, both parties are likely to have discovered a number of different resolutions that are more attractive than the ideas brought to the initial discussion by either party.

    Both parties are also more likely to be pleased with their final transaction if they come to the discussion with their very best case scenario in mind. The old adage “think positive” is the right one for negotiation. King Ching of Chou in the 12th century is reported to have said, “High achievement comes from high aims.” When negotiating, think about meeting mutual needs and desires with complementary solutions. Of course, one must prepare well by knowing the bottom line, or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. (We will talk more about BATNA in a subsequent issue.) And, of course, it is important to know one’s values so as not to compromise them. However, the best bargaining will result in all parties feeling as though they have acquired value and lost little or none. This happens when the negotiations spend sufficient time prior to the bargaining stage to discover common ground on values and mutual benefit in exchanging properties or ideas.

    The substantive changes in curriculum that are becoming established across the nation are the results of effective negotiation with many individuals with many interests. The “bargain” is often a method of increasing one department’s visibility in return for support for more dispersed or integrated teaching. Often, this requires negotiation of a new method of distributing funds to departments to recognize teaching effort and always a consideration of how these new distribution methods impact upon departmental and divisional budgeting. Each of these is a result of a bargaining process that builds into the larger vision of more effective teaching, learning, and organizational innovation.

    Closing and Commitment

    When various options have been fully explored, weighted by each party, and often adjusted, closing may occur. Blum tells us that we obtain true commitment form the other party “when the alternatives are not as attractive as following through on the deal.”  In an effective negotiation, both parties will come to this point of best possible combination of terms in a similar time frame.

    Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” A strong and visible closing and definition of terms facilitate an ongoing, trustworthy relationship. One might say of bargaining, “a good contract makes a good bargain—and a potential long term relationship that will continue to benefit both parties. In the United States, a symbolic handshake signifies a verbal agreement.  Signing a contract or memorandum of understanding or placing funds in escrow shows good faith intention to follow through on the agreement. A public announcement such as a press release or presentation at an important meeting gives credence to the plan.


    The best way to improve your negotiation effectiveness is to be conscious of your own opportunities and consciously work to improve your skill. Blum credits Shell in teaching that effective negotiators share similar characteristics. They all:

    1. engage in systematic planning and preparation;
    2. have high expectations;
    3. maintain a reputation for reliability and integrity;
    4. exhibit strong listening skills, knowledge of the subject matter, verbal skills and self-confidence.

    Fortunately, these are all characteristics that are important for academic success as well. Whether your focus is clinical care, educational innovation, or scientific research, you likely have developed a considerable foundation in each of these skills and traits.  Using the four stages, you should be able to enhance your negotiation effectiveness. At the 2004 AAMC Annual meeting, Drs. Jayne Thorson, Tim Johnson, and Dee Fenner from the University of Michigan College of Medicine shared some basic tips for negotiating new positions in academics.  All rely on the basic stages of negotiation, stages that Dr. Fenner describes as “a universal dance with four steps.”


    • Shell, Richard. Bargaining for Advantage, Penguin Books. 1999.
    • Blum, Steve. Executive Negotiation Workshop, AAMC Executive Development Seminar for Chairs and Associate Deans. October 2004
    • Fenner, Dee, Johnson T, Thorson J. Negotiating for Your Success, AAMC Annual Meeting, Women in Medicine small group discussion. November 2004.