Structuring: How Not to Be Eaten Alive in a Negotiation

By: Phillip Bogdanovich

I recently observed a contract negotiation between two companies. They seemed to be
negotiating mutually favorable terms until suddenly one side was at a clear advantage—and the other wasn’t even aware of the shift. This power exchange didn’t happen accidentally; the company with the upper hand had subtly engineered the negotiation in its own favor. The winning company in this negotiation used structuring, a military interrogation method that has made its way into the boardroom. Structuring is the key to maintaining a position of power in negotiations of any kind: business deals, job interviews, budget approvals, anything. It’s about managing situations without appearing to do so, asking leading questions, and strategically yet subtly positioning yourself for a favorable outcome.  Is structuring manipulative? Sure. Are your opponents trying to do it to you? Absolutely. So let’s explore what structuring is and how you can use it to your advantage.  

How to Win: Give the Other Side What They Want

When you structure a negotiation successfully, you give your opponent a gift: what appears to be a neat and tidy solution they can accept without worry, without feeling the need to formulate a different position. To make their conclusion this easy on them, you must frame a solution that appears mutually beneficial, leading with the payoff to them and downplaying any improvement to your own position. But don’t make it sound too good to be true. A solution that exclusively and richly benefits your opponent will create doubt and make them question your honesty. They’ll wonder what you’re gaining that you’re not discussing with them.

How to Structure a Negotiation: Four Key Components

Here are four simple steps you can follow to structure any negotiation.

1. Establish trust through interaction, often well before negotiations begin. This is called
framing. If you’re negotiating with someone in two weeks, start gathering intelligence
now. Research the people with whom you’ll be negotiating to identify any common
contacts, cities, workplaces, interests—any thread of connection you can later pull. Take
one of the decision-makers to coffee or lunch ahead of time. Don’t talk about business;
just create a personal dynamic and build trust you can quietly leverage later when
you’re sitting across the negotiating table.

2. Pay attention to your body language when you’re at the table. If your behavior or
posture is too relaxed, you may be perceived as unprofessional. If your body language is
closed, like crossed arms or a forward posture, you may seem aggressive or overly
assertive. But if you can project confidence, you’ll also inspire it in the people listening
to you.

3. There’s strength in (appropriate) numbers. During a negotiation, there should be as
many or more people in your camp as the other side has. Too many can make you seem
overbearing, indecisive or not knowledgeable. Too few can make you look unprepared.
Being evenly matched, on the other hand, sets the stage for a smoother, less combative
negotiation so all the work you did to structure the negotiation can pay off.

4. Speak softly, and you know the rest. Studies indicate that people who speak slightly
less frequently are perceived as more thoughtful, so don’t over-share. If you keep quiet,
your opponent may assume you know something they don’t. At the very least, they’ll
think your response, when it does come, is thoughtfully considered.

Through structuring, you have the power to keep yourself from being put in a disadvantageous position. If you find yourself thinking about only one option, give yourself the opportunity to step away from the table to think objectively about the deal—someone may be attempting to structure the negotiation against YOU.

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