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Meet the Negotiator (Who Can Help YOU Become One Too)

Erin Gleason Alvarez, Founder of Take Charge Negotiations, LLC
Erin Gleason Alvarez

Welcome back to “Meet the Bincubators,” a series in which we interview notable professionals who are helping entrepreneurs and businesses to grow and succeed.

Whether dealing with lenders or vendors, negotiating the terms of a lease or contract, or trying to find common ground with a co-founder or business partner, entrepreneurs and small business owners regularly find themselves in negotiations of one kind or another. How can you make the process as stress-free and potentially successful as possible?

To discuss these issues, we spoke with Erin Gleason Alvarez—attorney, arbitrator, mediator and the Founder and CEO of Take Charge Negotiations, LLC., which teaches people about negotiation strategies using mindfulness techniques. Erin speaks and writes regularly on these issues, and was most recently featured in Goop.

Erin, thank you so much for talking with me today about negotiationwhich is at the core of almost everything you do, and of course the focus of your new business. You are also an entrepreneur and small business owner. Can you please tell me a bit about what led you to form Take Charge Negotiations?

Of course, in my 20+ year career, I have sat around probably thousands of conference room tables, where negotiations were taking place. Most of the time, I was the only woman there. And while most of those meetings went well, in some of them the same old doubts and insecurities kept rising up—sometimes as a direct result of how someone was behaving towards me, other times in response to my own self talk.

In 2016, I became ill, largely due to stress and exhaustion, and I turned to meditation as a way to help take charge of those emotions. I enjoyed that so much that I continued to explore similar avenues—enrolling in university courses to learn about positive psychology, obtaining mindfulness coach credentials and even working towards certification as a yoga instructor. And then, somewhere in the combination of all of these things, something clicked. I saw a direct correlation between mindfulness and the challenges that many people—certainly not only women—feel when trying to negotiate. I decided to marry the two concepts, mindful negotiation, in order to create better experiences and outcomes. And Take Charge was born.

Graphic of woman sitting cross-legged with words in the background reading HERE, NOW, THSI, BREATH, BODY, FEELING, BEING and similar concepts

What, in your view, is the role of negotiation in helping a business, and particularly a small business, to grow?

It plays a pivotal role, beginning at the start-up and early growth stages. Oftentimes the first negotiations take place—and the first opportunities for tensions arise—amongst the founders themselves. Everyone needs to be very clear about the direction in which they want the company to go, their various roles and the expectations that are attached to that. If there is any confusion or disagreement, you need to make sure to talk about it, to take the time to understand everyone’s interests and to work out a plan in the beginning.

Very often, small companies are started by friends or family members, so there is already a preexisting trust, which is great. But sometimes there are also longstanding roles that not everyone wants to carry forward into the business. So, even if it’s a little uncomfortable, it is really important to have those conversations at the beginning, and to approach the conversation with a genuine curiosity and a true absence of judgment. You’re just trying to gather information that will help you make better decisions. And, really, the same general principles apply for every negotiation after that, whether that is with a vendor, a lender or even your customers.

Do you ever recommend that small business founders bring in a third party to help through that initial start-up process, to make sure that they kick things off in a healthy way?

It is not necessary but some people absolutely will do that, and I have served as a negotiation consultant in that capacity. It can be very helpful to formalize the discussion and to have an objective third party trying to help you hone negotiation strategies and establish better communication patterns from the start.

"So, even if it’s a little uncomfortable, it is really important to have those conversations at the beginning, and to approach the conversation with a genuine curiosity and a true absence of judgment."

Are some people just "born" (or at least naturally better) negotiators? And, if you're not in that camp, can you train yourself to get there, or at least fake it? If so, how?

I think it’s both. I look at my child and I see a born negotiator—and, in part because I’m so proud of and charmed by his developing skills, I occasionally “let” him get the better of me when negotiating things like how many minutes he can stay up past bedtime! But I had to work very hard to cultivate and build up confidence in my own negotiation skills—and I began by trying out different techniques and paying attention to my own negotiation style.

Women often assume they are not good negotiators. But if they think about it, they may realize that they’re actually very experienced, and competent, negotiators. We have had to be, simply from navigating the many challenges and often implicit bias that women face in the various stages of our lives and careers. And certainly, it’s not only women; whatever our gender identity or circumstances, we have all been negotiating our entire lives. So, through Take Charge, I really enjoy helping people to learn about mindful negotiation, to discover they already have these skills and this strength inside of them, and to cultivate and strategically direct those things for a better life.

So, as with many things, with negotiation it all comes down to how you look at it.

Absolutely. If the word sparks fear, consider exploring that. Looked at in a positive way, negotiation is really just talking and listening and learning, which are all things I think many of us value and would agree even sound fun. And that’s where the mindfulness component becomes so important as well. Mindfulness is literally about what you are looking at and experiencing—thinking, feeling, hearing—in the present, and I think mindful negotiation is a much more interesting and enjoyable lens through which to view the topic of negotiation skills and strategies.

Cartoon graphic representing a brain, with different sections on which words such as SENSE, TRACK, HERE, ATTEND, BREATH, LISTEN, FEEL and similar are superimposed

When you are entering into negotiations as a small business owner or entrepreneur, should you be going in with the end goal of “winning,” per se? What is the optimal mindset? While of course you want your negotiation to be successful, I think the word “winning” almost necessarily implies that only one party can win, and the other party must necessarily walk away feeling like a loser. A much healthier goal, at the outset of any negotiation is to see the conversation as a collaborative endeavor, where everyone who is a participant walks away with something they need and want—instead of walking away feeling humiliated or completely defeated and angry. But, in order to accomplish this, you can’t walk into a negotiation room and simply “wing it.” You must go in with an understanding of what is really important to you, and why. You also need to think about where the other people are coming from. How are your wishes or demands likely to be received? What do you understand about their position that might inform your own? It needs to be a collaborative process. Creating these negotiation strategies in advance allows you to be more flexible and open to more creative solutions.

Do you see any distinctions between business and personal negotiations, or are the basic principles the same?

While the way you conduct yourself in one versus the other is obviously different, I think both require essentially the same skills, such as listening. On this topic, something occurred to me recently. When negotiating in business, you will usually be on your best behavior in terms of treating the other party with respect. When negotiating with someone that is closer to you, it can be easy to take them for granted. A few years ago, I noticed myself speaking to my child somewhat distractedly, as many multitasking parents might understand and relate to—possibly reading an “urgent” work email or something, not looking into his eyes. I’ve since made it a point to try and give my child the same obvious attention and focus, when they are trying to tell me something that matters, as I would an opposing counsel or a CEO. This kind of mindfulness—or being fully aware and present—makes any conversation much more meaningful and, usually, more successful. And it is certainly a good lesson, in either a personal or professional setting.

Obviously, there are many things you can do to improve your negotiation skills and outcomes but, if you had to pick only one thing, what might that be?

I would say that preparation is the most important thing, and is often overlooked. And I’m not talking about preparing your script or your opening/closing argument. I am talking about taking the time to create a plan—again, to really understand what it is that you are working towards and your priorities, before you go in. And if you are negotiating on behalf of a team, it is really important to make sure you have an honest internal conversation and are aligned. You may think negotiations are about nothing more than a specific dollar amount that the parties are aiming for—but there is often a lot more hiding behind the money.

And now, the converse of that question: is there one thing that you might be doing that can doom, or at least strain, your negotiations, actually decreasing the odds that you will get what you want?

The worst thing you can do is not listen, to walk into the room with only one thing on your mind—your end goal—and not be open to or mindful of anything else that is taking place. Sometimes this is a matter of simply being distracted, as in the example I gave before. But sometimes it can be a matter of being told something you are resistant to hearing, or were not expecting to hear, and which upsets or embarrasses you. Instead of putting up an automatic barrier that ends the conversation, I recommend that people take a breath and keep listening. Try to make a little bit of mental space to just let what the other party has said sit, and to consider it.

Graphic of two hands shaking, with words such as WELCOME, CONNECT, MERGE, ASSIST, BRIDGE, RESPECT, SERVE and similar, superimposed

Let’s talk about negotiating successfully when there is a power imbalance, for example, when a small business is negotiating with a bigger one (which was, coincidentally, the topic of our last “Meet the Bincubators” interview, with your former AIG colleague Jenevra Georgini) or, for example, negotiating with possible sources of funding like a VC firm. How can you hold your own and ensure a positive outcome during these negotiations?

Well, the first thing I would say is that you should probably not be literally holding your own, as in going in on your own, in a situation as important as this. A lawyer, as your trusted advisor, can make sure that any negotiated terms are fair and that your ideas or IP are protected.

But, once you are sufficiently protected legally, it is also important for you to recognize, both emotionally and psychologically, that you have power and value in the transaction as well. It may feel like the VC firm has all the chips but there’s a reason you’re in the room, and that’s because you’ve got something good that’s worth fighting for. And working on the way you think about negotiation in the ways we’ve discussed here, just like building a muscle, will put you in a much better mental position for such important negotiations down the line.

"Preparation is the most important thing, and is often overlooked."

You teach weeks-long courses on negotiation, of course, so the full answer can’t be summed up in a few bullet points! But we ask all of our Bincubators to leave us with five tips/takeaways for small businesses. What would some of your basic takeaways be?

  1. Make time in advance of the negotiation to understand why you need to have this discussion and what you hope to accomplish.

  2. As part of that preparation process, it is helpful to visualize what that successful negotiation looks like to you... If you can imagine what it feels like to be at that table, confident and in control, you are more likely to actually realize that experience.

  3. You know yourself... What sets you off in these conversations? Remind yourself of this in advance, too, so you can make a plan for how you'll release it in real time.

  4. Remember that every moment of a conversation need not be filled with words... It's OK to sit in silence while you digest information.

  5. Reflect on each experience as an opportunity to learn.

All art is by johnhain / 1197 images, from Pixabay.

*This interview is provided for informational purposes only, and is not intended to offer legal/business advice.


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