Turning a Weak Position Into a Strong One

It is scary facing an adversary who appears to be dominant. This is true in self-defense situations, and it is true in negotiations. Just as I teach my hapkido and self-defense students that if attacked it will most likely be by a bigger and stronger opponent, we must often enter negotiations with a distinct disadvantage. Negotiating against someone who has a clearly dominant position is one of the greatest fears when negotiating. However, just as smaller people can learn to defend themselves against bigger and stronger attackers, we can learn to overcome a weak bargaining position to negotiate more effectively.

It is no fun entering a negotiation with a weak position. This is especially true when the opposing negotiator senses your weakness and attacks with tactics aimed at getting you to accept an unreasonable “take it or leave it” offer. Therefore, the projection of power during negotiations can increase how successful you’ll be.

Bluster, bravado, and bullying tactics are not what I mean by projecting a strong negotiation position. Replacing facts and figures with raising your voice can often be seen through as an obvious bluff. Without bravado and bullying, you should be self-confident regarding your negotiation success. If you are not confident you can succeed, you may want to reconsider negotiating in the first place. Going into a negotiation thinking and feeling that you will be slaughtered will most likely get you – slaughtered. If you think you are beaten, you will be. If you think you are not beaten, you still have a fighting chance. This is pretty much a universal principle for anything, negotiation included.

One of the most important keys to turning a weak position into a strong one when you cannot change the facts of the situation is in the projection of power. You want to project power through self-confidence and avoid projecting or showing weakness.

When discussing power, there are numerous considerations, and in fact there are many entire books on the topic. For purposes here in this short article, I want to focus on the difference between real power and perceived power. Real power being the power you actually possess and perceived power being the power others think you have. When we have the weaker bargaining position, it is often due to an imbalance of power. The weaker position is often due to having less real power, such as the small business owner negotiating with the large bank or the employee negotiating with his boss.

We must remember that perception is often more important than reality. Tom Peters and Bob Waterman wrote that perception is reality in their hugely popular “In Search of Excellence.” In negotiations, the perceptions of the interested parties usually have much more to do with the eventual outcome than the realities of the situation being bargained over. A person’s perceived power may be due to many different factors. The senior partner’s secretary may have greater influence with some decision-making than associates in a firm due to her proximity to the seat of power, even if her salary and actual authority is less than the attorneys in the firm. The significance between real and perceived power in the negotiation arena is that you don’t necessarily need a strong position when you negotiate as long as you are perceived as having one. If the opposing party thinks you have a strong position, that can be just as good as actually having one.

Besides perceived power, it is also important to maximize the power you do posses. In martial arts, the term structure can be used when referring to elements such as proper breath, spinal alignment, triangular positioning, posture, and axis among others. Sound anatomical structure is significant when faced with a deficit in terms of size and strength. By understanding and exercising sound anatomical structure, combined with techniques designed to maximize one’s strength for maximum effect to an opponent, the smaller person can exploit weak structure of an opponent and use sound structure and proper technique to compensate for lack of size and strength, thus being able to defeat the larger and stronger attacker. When negotiating, strength does not always come from your positions or what you have to trade at the bargaining table. Your ability to negotiate, which includes negotiation tactics, can assist you when negotiating against someone with a clearly dominant position.

Therefore, improving your negotiation skills, through study, practice, and experience will help you negotiate when your position is not as strong as those across the table. Your opponent may have the superior position, but if he is inept at negotiating, your better skills and tactics can see you through.

One important tactic when negotiating from a point of weakness is to focus on your strengths. Even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, we can find strengths that may have been initially overlooked. It might take more planning, preparation, and forethought, but there are usually strengths, even if small, that we can focus on to improve our situation. We must always remember that the only reason someone is negotiating with us in the first place is because we have something they want. By focusing on our strengths, our confidence increases. It was noted above why confidence and projecting power are important. Use every strength you have to its maximum advantage.

Another important tactic is to focus on your opponent’s weaknesses. I often teach smaller people to go for the eyes if attacked by a larger person. Even the smallest person can cause damage to a three hundred pound behemoth if they jab their finger in the monster’s eye. The person you are negotiating with will have a weakness. You need to find the opening in their armor or their Achilles Heel. Once you find this, you can work their weaknesses into your overall strategy. When you find weaknesses, you add strength to your negotiating position. Sometimes these weaknesses will be readily apparent, other times you will need to research, probe, and explore with questions to uncover them. Regardless of how you find them, identifying and focusing on your opponent’s weaknesses will have a positive effect on the outcome as you negotiate from a weaker initial position.

In conclusion, we must accept the fact that at times we will enter negotiations with a distinct disadvantage and have to negotiate against someone who has a clearly dominant position. Rather than roll over and accept an unreasonable “take it or leave it” offer, the disadvantaged negotiator can improve this weaker position by focusing on the strengths of the position, finding the weaknesses of the opponent, and projecting power through self-confidence. Through study, practice, and experience, we can learn to overcome a weak bargaining position to negotiate more effectively. We need never fear the dominant adversary again.