5 Soft Skills to Practice for Successful Negotiations

By Cash Nickerson 

When I was a young lawyer at Union Pacific Railroad, the Assistant Vice President of Law told me that 85 percent of my success would be based on how well I got along with others. Thirty-six years later, this advice has been proven right in all areas of my life, but most especially in negotiations.

Successful negotiations are all about using soft skills to find the sweet spot where a favorable outcome can be reached for all sides. When people feel like they’re being heard and valued, they’re more likely to agree and cooperate in the process. Because negotiation is a discovery process for both sides, better interactions will lead all parties to what they want.

View negotiation as a process of discovery

The discovery process begins with this fact: we don’t know what we want. We may think we know, but negotiations won’t be successful until we get down to the “why” of wanting something. This stage of curiosity will lay the foundation for the problem-solving required to reach a solution.

The “why” isn’t easily found, and it will require you to develop the mentality of an investigative journalist. What motivations and needs do both parties have? You can only find out these answers by asking questions and skillfully listening to the answers. This negotiation strategy can create and promote a healthy climate of intellectual curiosity and openness throughout the negotiation process. However, it requires learning and using your soft skills.

Here are a few tips to help you hone the skills needed to conduct winning negotiations:

1. Ask the right questions and listen to the answers

To understand the “why” behind the “what,” you have to ask many questions and learn to listen to everything that’s being said and not being said. What are the meanings, feelings and intentions behind the words? To discover those answers, you must know how to ask the right questions.

If you’re a fan of legal shows, you’ll notice that most often there are two different kinds of questions. One is an open probe question, which is open-ended. They can’t just answer in one word — they must reveal some information. An example would be, “What were you doing Friday night?” A closed probe question would be one that can be answered with a yes or no or other one-word statements. For example, “Is the report ready?” Open probes are used to find opportunities, while closed probes are used to identify needs.

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In negotiation, you’re seeking to find a solution through opportunity and need. Listen intently to what is stated in response to your questions and ask follow-up probes that help you explore the meanings and intentions behind the answers.

2. Hone your memory

When you settle into a room, enter a Zoom call or engage in a phone conversation, words and ideas start to fly. The ability to remember who said what, without taking notes, gives you the edge in a negotiation. Memory is a cognitive skill that can be developed and improved throughout your life.

One way to begin the process is to start with remembering people’s names.

First, focus on the person and take in all of his or her features. What are the things that make the person unique? Maybe he has curly hair. Associate the name with the curls in your mind so that when you see his curly hair again, you can pull up his name with it. Whatever characteristic that stands out most to you, that’s the one to associate with the person’s name.

Another trick is the repeat the name of the person when you’re introduced. Repetition helps fix the name in your memory. When you meet someone, say the person’s name. “It’s nice to meet you, Mary.” “That’s a great point, Mary.” “It was so nice to speak with you, Mary.”

While remembering names may seem like a small detail, people who put effort into learning names are also the type of people who will master critical negotiation skills.

3. Pay close attention

Paying attention is a soft skill. Some people are good at it, and some aren’t, but you can learn to be more present in any situation. Becoming more observant means getting into the attention zone where you’ll be able to focus on your counterparty instead of yourself.

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As a martial artist, the attention zone is the place where I’m fully in the moment. I notice everything and take it all in. It’s like looking at a video frame by frame — I see the small motions that most people miss. When I’m training intensely, it feels like all motion has slowed down. This is because I’m totally focused on the other person’s movements.

That level of attention is a powerful skill for a negotiator. When you can put yourself into the attention zone, you’ll find that you’re more engaged with people and better able to connect with them. Not only will you understand what they’re saying, but you’ll be able to reveal any confusion underneath. Maintaining this level of focus means that you must be fully present in the conversation. Don’t stop to write notes. Every time you write a reminder, you remove yourself from the conversation and will have to rebuild the connection each time.

4. Change the tempo

Negotiations are like a dance, a fight or an operatic exchange. Words, gestures, tones, expressions and emotions create points and counterpoints that form an almost musical rhythm. Pay attention to detect the tempo of your counterparty’s dance. Perhaps you’re dealing with someone from Texas who chooses a slower rhythm than a New Yorker. If you speak faster than they prefer, you may find yourself in a losing battle.

The good news is that you can adjust the conversation with a few tricks that help you close the deal. Does the discussion need to get lively? Try speaking in a faster rhythm. Are negotiations coming to a heated standstill? Slow your speech pattern and say something that can’t be disputed. Remaining silent can also be a powerful tool for maintaining control of the negotiation.

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5. Communicate with sincerity

Sincerity is like smiling — it’s contagious. Because negotiation is about give and take, if you approach with sincere intentions, they’ll almost always be rewarded. I’m reminded of this concept every time I enter the dojo where I practice martial arts. We bow before class starts and after it concludes. We bow to our teachers and our fellow students. We bow before sparring and after sparring. We express our sincere desire to learn, not hurt, and respect the techniques and traditions shared with us with each bow.


Author Bio:

Cash Nickerson is chairman of AKKA North America’s Business Unit. He was President, CFO, General Counsel, and the second largest shareholder of PDS Tech prior to its purchase by AKKA Technologies. Previous roles include attorney and marketing executive for Union Pacific Railroad, associate and then partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago, and chairman and CEO of an internet company. He teaches Negotiation as a Professor of Practice at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Law. Nickerson has authored several books, with his latest book, Negotiation as a Martial Art: Techniques to Master the Art of Human Exchange (Made for Success, July 2, 2021), named “Best New Release in Business Negotiations” by the Wall Street Journal. Learn more at

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