Becoming a Master Negotiator & Influencer

Fatimah Gilliam Founder, and CEO The Azara Group

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Interview by Lisa Chau with Fatimah Gilliam

Earlier this year, Wellesley@Work presented an event on Becoming A Master Negotiator & Influencer, hosted at Teachers College, Columbia University. The discussion was led by Fatimah Gilliam, Esq., Founder and CEO of The Azara Group. She is a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Columbia Law School, and Wellesley College.

I interviewed her on the art of negotiation.

Why are negotiation skills important?
Negotiation skills are important because they touch on every aspect of our lives - both personal and professional. While we may not think we are negotiating every day, we are. How we interact with our colleagues and loved ones impacts the strength of our relationships with them, and how effective we can be in influencing them to get what we want.

When you're skilled at influencing and being persuasive, you can get more out of life. Knowing how to navigate difficult conversations allows you to put and keep more money on the table for your business, employer, and family.

What are the biggest hurdles in negotiations?
There are many challenges in negotiations, but one of the biggest is having limited access to information. It's the nature of every negotiation. You don't know what the other person is willing or has the capacity to offer, their bottom line, and the concessions they can or will make.

You have to probe and use effective listening skills to uncover information to limit as many information holes as possible.

What are common themes in successful negotiations?
Keeping your bottom line in mind is critical to success. Often, people get distracted by low totem pole priorities. When I've worked with my clients in complex negotiations, I have to remind them of what they really want so they don't "sweat the small stuff." When they've kept a keen focus on the big picture, they're able to be more strategic and end up getting more of what they want in the end.

How does personality factor into negotiations?
Personality can make or break negotiations. The only thing you can control in a negotiation is yourself, and how you will respond to new information and the actions of the other party. When egos, snarky attitudes, and disrespectful behavior get in the way, they can derail discussions.

As a negotiations expert, I always recommend that people keep their emotions in check, get out of their own way, and always foster an atmosphere of respect.

Are there times when people should just walk away from negotiations?
Yes. As the song goes, you have to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. Not all deals can be finalized, and some relationships aren't beneficial for your business or career. If you know what's important to you and what your core goals are, you can evaluate whether closing a deal is worthwhile.

It's also important to consider the people with whom you're involved. If you can't envision working with someone long-term, genuinely dislike them, struggle in respecting them, or don't have the same values or vision, then it might be appropriate to walk away. Pursue other relationships that work well with your style and goals, and where you feel invested in maintaining lasting ties.

What are the traits of a master influencer?
A master influencer is skilled at reading people, anticipating future roadblocks, understanding who the key stakeholders are, exuding confidence and competence, and pulling the lever when tough decisions need to be made. Being an effective influencer is not just a natural skill, but it's a learned skill.

If someone wants to be successful at "negotiation chess," then they need to practice this skill - in big and small ways. You have to hone and cultivate this skill. I've known since I was a child that I had a natural ability to influence people and to get more of what I wanted. But I've also spent a lot of time developing this skill.

After Wellesley College, I went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. My concentration at Harvard was Conflict Resolution and Negotiation. When I attended Columbia Law School, I participated in the Mediation Clinic and mediated court cases. Whether I was working as a Wall Street lawyer, in corporate strategy at Citigroup, or negotiating corporate partnerships at the United Nations, I've continued to develop this skill over time.

My point is that I'm constantly refining my craft. I love traveling to developing countries. I do this not just to see the world, but also so I can haggle in street markets. I see the world as my training ground.
Anyone who wants to expand their negotiating prowess should find small ways to develop and test their skills - even if it's in trying to get an extra 25% off when shopping. You have to start somewhere. But if you're conscious that you're always negotiating, influencing, and building relationships, then you can test various tactics as you develop your own style.

What strategies should master influencers always or never use?
People should always be respectful of others. When I read in the newspaper that a deal fell apart, my gut often tells me that someone probably didn't like someone else in the room or felt disrespected. Business is personal and people matter. If you want to get more from people, then they have to feel acknowledged and respected.

People may not remember what you say, but they will always remember how you made them feel. You can disagree, but being disagreeable is another matter. I advise my clients to first approach any negotiation by being collaborative and finding commonality. You can grow the pie of possibilities when you're less adversarial and convey respect.

How do master influencers gain trust?
When you are a person of your word, don't backtrack on promises, and are honest about what you cannot do, you can build trust. Nobody likes dealing with someone trying to "Jedi Mind Trick" them or who treats them like pawns in a manipulative game.

Also, respecting others and showing that you value their opinions - even if you disagree with them - can go a long way towards building lasting relationships based on trust.

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