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Three Fundamental Reasons Negotiators Fail
Derrick Chevalier

While volumes have been written on negotiating tactics, techniques, and strategies, relatively little is written on why negotiators fail to achieve their stated goals and objectives. This article explores three fundamental reasons why many negotiators do not achieve their objectives. The article also touches on the issue of why so many negotiators, who are adept in one area of negotiation, find themselves literally incapable of excelling in areas of negotiation outside of their particular area of expertise.

The first and perhaps most important reason many negotiators fail is that the vast majority of negotiators never translate their general knowledge of negotiation into specific skill(s) that can be called upon with the same ease as the multiplication tables, for example.

Ask most people who negotiate professionally what framework of negotiation they use, and they will look at you as though you are from another planet.

Even when one attempts to clarify the question by naming obvious possibilities (such as the Karrass framework, the Harvard framework, the Cohen framework, and the Fisher/Ury framework), many negotiators are at a loss to come up with a specific answer. And many who do give a specific answer are rarely able to follow up with even the most basic facts surrounding the framework they use every day of the week.

In my book, Beyond Negotiating: From Fear to Fearless, I describe how we traveled throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere asking participants from our workshops whether or not they were familiar with Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The vast majority of the participants quickly raised their hands, indicating they had read or were aware of this great resource. I then asked, "How many people know what habit number one is?" Virtually everyone lowered their hands, indicating they could not recall the first of Dr. Covey’s seven habits. Ironically, the first habit is "Be Proactive."

The results are identical when we ask professionals who have attended any number of negotiating workshops questions such as, "What’s the first rule or guideline you were given in the negotiating course you attended recently?" Inevitably, respondents are at a loss to recall any more than mere fragments of what was presented during the courses they’ve attended or from the books they’ve read on the subject of negotiation.

By contrast, if you ask a person who negotiates professionally what the sum of two plus two is, what would their answer be? Any answer other than four would likely be considered incorrect, as few would argue that the product of two plus two is indeed four.

Nonetheless, ask that same person what negotiating framework he/she uses, and you will likely get a blank stare. For those who think they have an answer to the previous question, follow up by asking, "What is the primary tenet of the framework you use?" The vast majority of respondents will fall short of a coherent answer.

Why is it that so many who agree that the memorization of the multiplication tables is an important step prior to the study of Algebra, see no relevance in committing the basic tenets of a specific negotiating framework to memory as a fundamental part of establishing themselves as expert negotiators?

The point isn’t that everyone should select or necessarily follow any particular negotiating framework; the point is that without first committing some specific negotiating framework to memory, the development of truly exceptional negotiating skills is practically impossible to achieve, outside of a narrow professional specialization or set of issues.

Further, the lack of a specific negotiating framework also makes it far more difficult to teach others how to duplicate a result – as in cases where companies negotiate the same or similar issues continuously – which means that the lack of a specific negotiating framework becomes more and more costly the longer a relationship lasts, since mistakes are repeated time and time again.

And what happens when the result of a negotiation isn’t one that you want to duplicate? How can a negotiator ever hope to understand where a particular negotiation went off track – if that negotiator was never certain which track the train was on in the first place? Simply put, the vast majority of professional negotiators don’t have a clue where their unsatisfactory negotiations went wrong or how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. And it’s precisely because they lack a specific negotiating foundation from which to analyze their strategy or tactics.

If you want to become a wine expert, you probably won’t achieve your goal by going out and drinking one bottle of twelve different wines over a long weekend. The better approach would be to drink twelve cases of one wine over time and then compare and contrast the characteristics of that wine to the characteristics of any other wine in the world. The resulting insight and knowledge is in fact your expertise – and your ability to make such comparisons consistently under a variety of circumstances is your skill. Yes, there are extraordinary negotiators who have never attended a negotiating course or read a book on the subject, but they are very, very few and far between. If you know a natural-born expert negotiator ask him/her if they would be willing to teach you how to do what they can do. More often than not, there is a vast difference between someone who knows how to do something and someone who also knows how to teach someone else how to achieve the same result.

Building your negotiating expertise by committing to and then sticking with a specific framework of negotiation until you’ve learned the fundamentals of that framework will separate you from the vast majority of professional negotiators. It will also significantly increase the level of success you are capable of achieving in your negotiations and insure that you will avoid the first fundamental reason many negotiators fail.

The second fundamental reason negotiators fail is that most negotiators focus on what they believe their starting positions are rather than focusing on the desired outcome. In other words, far too many negotiators focus on the weaknesses or strengths of their initial positions rather than focusing on the accurate assessment and quantification of the real challenges and issues standing between themselves and their counterparts.

One of the most important skills a negotiator can develop is the skill of knowing how to assess and quantify the real issues that stand between the parties – rather than acting or reacting based upon a perception of what one believes those issues to be. This is one of the most important concepts taught by authorities such as Dr. Chester L. Karrass, author of Give and Take, and yet even many seasoned negotiators make the mistake of over estimating or underestimating their strengths and weaknesses – and the positions, strengths, and weaknesses of their counterparts.

Learning to accurately assess and quantify the obvious and hidden issues between the parties involved in a negotiation is a skill that requires disciplined focus and a systematic approach as precise as reading Braille or deciphering Morse code. To do it consistently and with great accuracy requires more than a measure of good luck and a handshake, because, as Karrass says, "In business as in life you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate."

The third fundamental reason negotiators fail is fear. No matter how much you know about negotiation or about the strengths and weaknesses of your counterpart, if you lack the courage, discipline, and determination to act in the face of risk or uncertainty, you will almost always fall short of achieving the best possible outcome in a given situation. Fear will always invite you to aim for less than you are capable of achieving. Fear vehemently discourages negotiators from pursuing what M. Scott Peck calls "The Road Less Traveled," which is precisely the road that must be traveled in order to craft agreements that truly reflect and protect the interests of all parties involved (if that is your objective). If you are engaged in a competitive struggle where your primary objective is merely to prevail, then fear must be conquered first – or you risk being defeated by it long before you are defeated by your counterpart at the negotiating table.

Defeating fear demands a genuine commitment, a methodical process, and a journey beyond the boundaries of flawlessly executed tactics and techniques.

Anyone can become a significantly better negotiator quickly and systematically by eliminating these three fundamental reasons negotiators fail. First, identify and commit to one of the internationally recognized frameworks of negotiation and thoroughly review and memorize the primary tenants of that framework until they are second nature to you. In other words, go an inch wide and a mile deep in one framework of negotiation rather than go a mile wide and an inch deep in many different frameworks of negotiation. Slowly, you will expand your skill, knowledge, and expertise. Second, cultivate an ability to identify, assess, and quantify the obvious and hidden issues that separate the parties at the beginning of a negotiation, then focus on achieving your desired outcome rather than your perceptions of the positions, strengths, and weaknesses of the other parties. Finally, eliminate fear by moving Beyond Negotiating: From Fear to Fearless, and you will immediately achieve greater success and greater consistency in your negotiations than you ever thought possible.


Chevalier, D., Beyond Negotiating: From Fear to Fearless (Los Angeles: Harrison-Chevalier Publishers, 2002).
Covey, S., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).
Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B., Getting to Yes (New York: Penguin Books, 1922).
Karrass, C., Give and Take (New York: HarperCollins, 1974).
Karrass, C., In Business As In Life – You Don’t Get What You Deserve, You Get What You Negotiate (Los Angeles: Stanford Street Press, 1996).
Peck, M. Scott, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978).

Derrick Chevalier is the Sr. Executive Vice President of Harrison-Chevalier, Inc. a dynamic training and consulting firm located in the Los Angeles area. A former university lecturer and administrator Derrick left higher education to undertake a career in business and now possesses combined experience that includes more than 21 years in sales, management, consulting and real estate finance. Derrick has conducted hundreds of customized seminars and workshops throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and the African Continent for a wide range of clients including Deloitte & Touche Consulting, AT&T;, Sports & Entertainment International, Esterline Technologies, Pirelli Armstrong, Ford and Visteon Automotive. For more information about Mr. Chevalier and his firm, Harrison-Chevalier, Inc., please visit their website at www.h-c.com.

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