The art of frame control in deal negotiations

Written by Matt Joy

Last month, Banksy, the infamous artist, activist and mystery man, installed a shredder in his painting ‘Girl with a Balloon’. As soon as the hammer fell at Sotheby’s, the painting was destroyed. What a way to regain the frame…

Deal negotiations are like any interaction in life – how you behave and how you perceive the other side behaves dictates the success of the interaction. Of course, in a business deal, the stakes are a little higher than the extra olives you negotiated on your lunchtime salad, but the principles are the same.

One essential aspect in any negotiation is the importance of frame control. The frame, is another way to say the perspective or individual agendas of the respective parties in a negotiation. Although the amount of leverage you walk in with matters, it’s just not as much as you think. In The Art Of War, Sun Tzu posts that every war is won or lost before it even begins. Although there are a lot of things that can be, and need to be, done to shepherd a deal to success, none of this matters if you don’t walk in with a strong negotiation frame.

Setting and holding the frame

The key is to ask the right questions of yourself, and your opposite numbers. Are you treating the negotiation as a results-oriented strategy, a passive problem-solving exercise or are you taking (battle) positions? Are you equals, or are you trying to dominate? Will compromise be seen as a sign of strength? Where is your frame control?

I hate the phrase ‘be prepared to walk away’. To me it makes no sense. Why even bother going into the negotiation if you’re going to walk away? If you walk in with the mindset, it becomes almost a foregone conclusion. Because people who want to come to a solution, understand each other’s drivers, and have frame mastery are the ones that stay at the table.

Developing frame mastery

A master deal maker will look to set, control or adjust the frame at the very beginning. Before the details are even discussed. It’s about agreeing parameters, but also understanding why you’re all here. As with deal fatigue, the longer a negotiation goes on for, the harder it is to keep everyone engaged.

The big challenge here is not just whether you lose the frame, but whether your opposition lose respect for you in the process and gain control over all negotiations thereafter. Respect is easily lost and hard to regain.

If this does happen, there are a number of tactics that can get you back on track. However, it is key that you understand these and prepare yourself before you sit down at the table. Because otherwise, you’ll end up being dominated, pushed into a win: lose and if you do proceed, you may have transaction remorse and have to carry this yourself and for the company or people you represented. You don’t have to go there.

Taking subjects offline

Not everything has to be discussed in detail with all parties. Yes, transparency is important but you have to break the frame if they are dominating, and this gives you a chance to do it. Keep your context, detail is a regular spoiling tactic when brought up at the wrong time.

Chunking back up to the mutual desired result and taking obstacles offline or proving their poor fit with the common goal is a great way to hold your frame and position in the negotiation. Its okay too to take valuable detail offline too if it is inflamatory or at a different lower level to the negotiations. Take the steam out of it and keep it on track.

Know your frame

What’s your agenda and goal and what is the most effective way to get there? Do you need everyone to be enthusiastic about the opportunities? Or, do you need them to focus in on the detail and come together to create the best deal possible? You will have heard thousands of people saying that you need to know your goals before you walk in the room, I’d argue it’s just as important as knowing your frame.

Energy Play

With your undercurrent of knowing your frame you can push and give to explore their boundaries. Be powerful, not forceful – and sometimes emotions need to settle, when you can drop your relatedness to a softer level with them too so they don’t feel polarised or embarrassed. This then builds trust out of the respect that you show.

Remember, you need to lead yourself, your company and your current and future clients in any negotiation, and to do so you need to stay in front if you are to lead the negotiation well.

Don’t seek to dominate

Allowing the other party to move away in an apparent power play or concession, for them only to be brought back to your agenda is a great way to regain the frame. Own the documentation and the agenda coupled with your use of empathy to ensure every party feels heard and respected. It’s like holding the steering wheel but being compassionate to your guests. People mixup frame control, with actual control. If you’re seeking to dominate the negotiations, you’ve completely misunderstood what makes great deal makers. It’s not about steamrolling.

Win Wins

The saying ‘win the battle, but lose the war’ applies if you haven’t yet seen the bigger play. ‘Win the battle, but lose the peace’ applies you have gone to hard but complete the deal and still have to work together – but the relationship and trust is damaged. I have seen both too many times to count.

This is why I demand that anyone I coach, mentor or support negotiations for develops a deep understanding of frame control from the outset.

Because if you create a strong frame, there is no need to dominate and everyone will walk out feeling like it was a success.

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