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5 Negotiating Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From the Government Shutdown

Successful negotiations result from both sides knowing what is good enough.

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At some point, most entrepreneurs will need to negotiate on behalf of their companies and employees.

Jabin Botsford | Getty Images

It's a prospect fraught with fear and anxiety for many. Yet negotiation is a skill that can be learned like any other and improved upon with attentive practice.

No matter what your political beliefs may be, you can draw some negotiating lessons from the recent partial government shutdown in the U.S. and use those tips to improve your own negotiating skills.

Related: Be Calm, Flexible and Speak Up in a Negotiation, and Everyone Can Win

1. Know who you're negotiating with.

Don't underestimate a brand or a person you haven't done business with before.

The separate "faces" of the two "sides" in the shutdown negotiations were perceived to be President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Because Pelosi's party was in the minority for the first half of the President's current term in office, and since that only changed a few weeks after the shutdown began, the White House may not have been very familiar with her negotiating style.

The positions of both sides were fairly well publicized. But Pelosi's approach to negotiating wasn't well known to the White House. On the other hand, President Trump published a book specifically about negotiating called "The Art of the Deal." His negotiating style and tactics were, literally, an open book in that sense.

Do your research before you engage in any negotiations. Find out what you can before you ever sit down to the table. What does the other side want, need and fear? How have they approached past negotiations? What other options do they have besides your company and your proposed deal? You may not be able to learn the answers to these questions with full certainty, but you can absolutely find out more than you've been directly told.

Related: 8 Negotiating Tactics Every Successful Entrepreneur Has Mastered

2. Listen to the other side.

In politics as in life, it seems we human beings often talk over or at each other, instead of with each other. That seemed to be the case as well during the shutdown, when politicians from both major parties attempted to make their case to the American public. At some point, it became clear that there wasn't much listening happening on either side.

Negotiations are not (just) about talking, no matter how they've been portrayed in film and TV shows. The best negotiators know one key is to ask open-ended, relevant questions, then listen to the responses provided by the other side. Whatever information you didn't get when you did your homework in step one, you can find out now, simply by asking and then listening fully to the answer you get. Showing that you're willing to listen builds trust and makes the process more successful.

Related: The Nuances Of Negotiation

3. Know what is your minimally acceptable position.

Are you willing to walk away, and if so, when?

The White House shutdown position was firmly settled: it wanted a border wall and Congressional funding of $5.7 billion. Speaker Pelosi's position was equally clear: The government had to be reopened before they'd discuss any wall funding. The Democrats knew what they would not accept, and signaled their willingness to walk away if their hand was forced.

Before you sit down to bargain with anyone about anything, it's likewise essential for you to know your minimally acceptable outcome. This isn't setting yourself or your company up for failure. Rather, it's being realistic and understanding your boundaries before you begin to negotiate. This helps strengthen your position and communicate your resolve to the other side. Desperation is not conducive to effective negotiations.

4. If possible, create a partnership instead of a battle.

Many entrepreneurs and business people think of negotiations as a kind of war. One side wins and the other loses. The President subscribes to this school of thought, judging from the advice in his book "The Art of the Deal." Certainly, there are times when the better strategy is to stand firm and insist on the right outcome, as you see it.

However, instead of butting heads right out of the gate, successful negotiators try to show the other side how they'll come out ahead.

If you're attempting to negotiate a lease dispute, for example, you could show the landlord how your position will benefit them, perhaps through additional base rent or other concessions. Figure out a way to help the other side feel like they're winning, and you'll win, too.

Related: 7 Reasons Why 'Just Ask' Is the Best Negotiation Tactic

5. Establish what you have in common.

If you can start from a shared common ground that's relevant to your negotiations, you stand a much greater chance of getting the other side to work with you towards an acceptable solution.

In the partial government shutdown, it may have seemed like the two sides were diametrically opposed on just about every relevant issue. However, there were some points of commonality: both wanted the government re-opened soon, and both agreed that security is important, even if they disagreed on the best way to achieve that goal.

In the end it was something we all have in common -- a desire for airline safety -- that ended the shutdown. On January 25th, 10 air traffic controllers decided to stay home, causing immediate flight delays. That same day, President Trump backed down.

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