Why Too Much Preparation Will Kill a Good Negotiation

Many years into a career which spanned six decades, the renowned actor Sir Laurence Olivier developed stage fright.

Well known for immersing himself completely in a role and preparing scrupulously, he doubled down to no avail.

In fact, things got worse.

While playing Othello at the National Theatre in 1964, Olivier had to be pushed onstage by the stage manager every night, and requested that the other actors not look him in they eye and distract him.

He needed to think.

Rehearsing for a play is much like preparing for a negotiation. It can be a heady process, requiring a lot of research, analysis, and list making.

Your effort will include many, if not all, of these elements:

  1. Researching your value in the hands of your employer/market.
  2. Benchmarking your position/salary for comparables.
  3. Creating a Confidence Map: a deep review of your work history to reacquaint yourself with your accomplishments, results, skills and strengths.
  4. Aligning elements of your Confidence Map with the vision of the company and the goals of your position/department.
  5. Developing a list of potential objections and roadblocks.
  6. Creating a companion list to #5 that redirects your bargaining partner back to your strengths, experience and education as a benefit to them.
  7. Developing a list of ideas, solutions or initiatives you’d like to implement to demonstrate the value of your unique capacities in their hands.
  8. Inventing stock phrases to keep things moving, positive, creative and hopeful.

The final element of your preparation is practice.

This might include talking out loud to get comfortable singing your own praises and walking through your accomplishments. Or you might practice with a friend or colleague to hear yourself anchor at the top or above the salary range and not choke, or worse, upline your number into a question mark.

But there comes a point at which you need to turn your thinking off.

Much like preparing for a role in a play, every actor reaches a spot when more rehearsal, and planning moves and choices, have a counter-productive effect.

Too much preparation and thinking can kill the actor’s connection with other actors, and impair his/her ability to respond authentically in the moment.

The actor needs to toss the mechanics and perform—interact with other characters and the audience—to realize the full potential of the play.

It’s the same with negotiation. While the process is full of planning and at the table strategies and tactics, it is primarily a communication discipline in which the craft disappears in favor of conversation.

Being human.

Being real.

And while both parties in a negotiation have a purpose and a desired (hopefully mutual) outcome, conversation is rarely linear.

If you’re too focused on making your mark, you’ll miss the best part of any conversation—the unexpected opportunities that naturally arise when curiosity is the leading intention.

Emily, a former client, rolled her eyes at me for telling her that the most important part of the negotiation conversation (perhaps even more important than anchoring first, and high) was asking open-ended, diagnostic questions.Who, what, when, where, why and how. 

She kept telling me, “I don’t want to get bowled over…my boss is ruthless…and if I don’t barrel through, she’ll walk all over me.”

Like many beginning actors, beginning negotiators think they have to steel themselves for the ask, the performance, and go through the motions like a paint-by-numbers kit.

I said, “Okay, try it your way. I still say taking her to lunch and asking questions will give you much more ease and flow, but let’s see how your strategy works.”

To my delight and surprise she said, “I choked. I couldn’t remember anything I’d prepared, or very little of it, so I just asked her a bunch of questions. Finally I started to relax and breathe and my brain started working again.”

So I told her about Olivier, and Steve Blass, the Pirates pitcher, and later Rick Ankiel of the Cardinals, who both lost their ability to throw from some kind of weird thinking too much that made them throw wild pitches. Pitcher stage fright I suppose.

The upshot: stress can make your mind go blank. Duh. And too much preparation can make you forget what you’re already good at—conversation.

So take your negotiation partner to lunch and breathe between questions.