Negotiation is about reaching out and communicating with another person. No matter how big or sophisticated the negotiation is, there is a human being on the other side of the table. Most of the work people do preparing for negotiation is about finding out what that counterparty needs to hear to be persuaded. What are their interests? What risks are keeping them up at night? What options might they accept, and what will they reject out of hand? As important as these substantive factors are, there’s something that many negotiators forget to take into account. Negotiating well isn’t just about saying what the other person needs to hear. It’s about saying how they need to hear it.

We’ve all had the experience of giving an argument, pitch, or presentation to multiple people and seeing wildly different results. An explanation that leaves one person yawning will make another sit up and take notice; an argument may be a hit in one meeting and evaporate in another, making no particular impression one way or another. This may be the result of the content and diverse opinions about the merits of your position, but it could also be a problem of style. People simply respond differently to different styles of communication. Even if the content doesn’t change, targeting the presentation to the audience can make a tremendous difference in how well it is received.

Communication failure.

Not every message is equally clear to every audience.


A single target approach. 

Most people structure their communication around a single audience: themselves. In other words, we tend to argue or negotiate with other people as if we were talking to ourselves, by using the kinds of arguments that we find persuasive and interesting. I often use the example of research and data. I find scientific support for an argument very compelling, and tend to look for validation by experts when I hear a new proposal. When I try to persuade someone else, my normal inclination is to find and emphasize that same kind of validation. If I were talking to myself, that would be a great strategy. When I’m working with someone else, it’s likely to fail. Every person I interact with has their own set of preferences, and I need to match my communication with those preferences to get the most persuasive value out of my work.

Understanding another person’s style of communication is not always easy. Ideally, the best way to do it is to really study the way they communicate and analyze the questions they ask and the answers they give. But inside a negotiation there’s rarely enough time to really develop a de novo analysis like that. Therefore, communication experts have created a variety of different models to use to do that work for you. The Harvard Business Review, for example, suggests a basic strategy for dealing with the mismatch between explainers and emotional venters. Some of the author’s advice–such as looking in the other person’s left eye, because it’s connected to the “emotional brain,” is very unscientific. But his basic idea, giving his readers a set of rules with which to organize a response to difficult communication situations, is the right idea. Other categorical systems like DISC profiles and the three-part model Prism uses are designed to give people a more sophisticated set of tools, but one that is still easy enough to use practically.

Ultimately these models are designed to make it easier to target communication quickly and accurately. They focus on a few axes to try and pin down how the other person likes to be persuaded. Are they a big-picture thinker, or detail-oriented? Are they more interested in emotional appeals or logical arguments? Do they care more about proof of past success, a solution that’s easy to implement in the present, or details of how the proposal will succeed going forward into the future? Do they care about what other people have done in this space, or are they focused mostly on their own situation? Answering questions like these makes it easier to figure out how to structure a presentation or argument to be as persuasive as possible, independent of the content, by tailoring it to match the other side’s communication priorities.

A broader approach.

The best time to carefully tailor communication is when you’re working with a single counterpart and you can determine exactly what they want to hear. That’s not a very common situation, both because it’s hard to pin down a person’s style that exactly and because most negotiations involve multiple people on the other side of the table. For example, how useful is that tactic when you’re negotiating with an intermediary rather than the decisionmaker? Or when you’re presenting to a group rather than a single person? Diverse audiences create diverse receptions.  This is where it becomes particularly helpful to have a good, structural model of communication styles.

Understanding the axes that drive differences in communication styles makes it easier to plan for diverse audiences, as well as for individuals whose styles are unclear. Consider the questions we posed above. Should you focus on the big picture, or details? Emotions, or logic? The past, present, or future? When communicating broadly, do all of the above. As much as possible, make an argument that appeals to each personality type somewhere along the way, so that no matter how the other side likes to communicate, they’ll find something persuasive in what you’re saying. If you’re working with a large group, you want the big-picture thinkers and the detail people to each think you’re talking to them. A structural model makes this easier by giving you a few profiles to target.

We tend to negotiate with other people as if we were talking to ourselves. Studying communication styles helps flip that around, so that the other side of the table hears our message as if they were speaking it themselves.