How to use stories to become a better negotiator

My new book, The Book of Real-World Negotiations: Successful Strategies from Government, Business and Daily Life not only focuses on real world negotiation examples, but a subplot that clearly comes through in the book is the power that stories possess when it comes to negotiating.

To understand what I mean, consider the following tale and all that in conveys.

I was recently advising a party to a negotiation.  In that case the person was negotiating with a very difficult individual that was stonewalling at every turn.

The person I was advising was very frustrated because they could not seem to get the other negotiator to move from their deeply held position.  So I advised him to think about a precedent or an example that he could share that would demonstrate there was a different way forward.  Something that would help the other negotiator to visualize where my client wanted to try to take things and how they could both achieve their goals.

After some back and forth, brainstorming, and consulting with his colleagues, my client uncovered a very similar situation to the challenge in front of him.  We worked hard not only on the content of the example, but also very importantly on how to best to share the example as a compelling story.

We asked ourselves, “What would really resonate with the other negotiator and why?  Furthermore, what emotional aspects of the story could be emphasized and teased out that would really impact the other party?”

A story to overcome resistance

A few days later my client met with the other negotiator and, yet again, the other negotiator came on very strong – sharing that he felt continued negotiation was pointless because he was not going to change his mind.

Then my client said, “I understand.  Before we stop, can I just share a story with you?”

The other negotiator paused and looked quizzically at my client. With an eyeroll and an exasperated tone replied, “OK, fine.  Go ahead if you must.”

My client began by explaining the background and the similarities between the previous situation and this negotiation.  As he continued, he emphasized how afraid the previous negotiators were that they would not be able to find a solution.

My client noticed something interesting — the other negotiators face began to soften.  He uncrossed his arms and leaned forward.  After a few minutes the other negotiator said, “So, what happened next?” Then my client made some key connections we had discussed that further drew in the other negotiator.

As my client finished laying out how all this would happen the other negotiator stated, “That does seem plausible. Since it has already been done I am willing to give it a try.”  My client smiled, shook hands, and walked out of the room amazed at what had just transpired.

3 Reasons why stories help when negotiating

As you can grasp from this example, stories impact negotiation in a number of interesting, and perhaps, unexpected ways.  There are at least three means by which stories can be utilized effectively in negotiation.

1. Stories are relatable

First, stories convey lessons and provide examples that everyone can understand and relate to easily.  Stories are truly universal, used by every culture on the planet, and are the most common way people have learned for millennia.

A good story, and its lessons, are something people immediately understand and transcend different learning styles.

2. Stories are easy to recall

tips for successful negotiating

Second, stories are easier to recall in tense moments than theories or concepts.  According to Professor Jennifer Aker of Stanford Business School, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

When a negotiator is in a difficult situation, and experiencing anxiety, they can sometimes freeze up.  When that happens they are not be able to recall important information or to think clearly about what they want to say.  It is at that moment that stories become increasingly valuable.

Stories serve as something to fall back on, to succinctly make your point, and give you the space and time to emotionally settle enough to get back to your overall negotiation approach.

3. Stories can shift the conversation

Third, stories are very useful as a tactic to disarm the other negotiator and to shift the conversation to a more productive realm.

Part of the reason for this is because stories often come from an outsider’s perspective. This perception can be persuasive to a skeptical negotiation counterpart because it is not coming from the other party, but rather an external source.

In addition, stories have a way of naturally drawing people in and getting them to listen when trying to be persuasive in other ways simply does not work.  As Vanessa Boris, a Psychologist and Storyteller explains, “Good stories do more than create a sense of connection.  They build familiarity and trust, and allow the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning.

Good stories can contain multiple meanings so they’re surprisingly economical in conveying complex ideas in graspable ways.”[1]

Finally, one of the hardest things to do in a negotiation is to shift another negotiation from a positional approach (i.e. competitive) to a more interest based (i.e. cooperative) approach.  As was evident in the aforementioned story, these anecdotes have a way of almost seamlessly helping a negotiator to make this difficult shift and to demonstrate to the other negotiator how such a shift may be possible.

So, whether it is preparing for a negotiation, or when you find yourself in the midst of a contentious process, think about which stories might help break the deadlock and why.  Then use them thoughtfully and strategically to advance your negotiation objectives.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Joshua N. Weiss, Ph.D, author of  The Book of Real-World Negotiations: Successful Strategies from Business, Government, and Daily Life (Wiley), and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project.  For more see www.joshuanweiss.com

[1] Boris, V. “What Makes Storytelling So Effective For Learning?” Harvard Business Review.  December 20, 2017.

Last updated: 13th March, 2021

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