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Negotiation: A skill to be nurtured

I was recently shocked to hear that one my good friends was thinking of leaving her job as a vet as she felt underpaid and overworked. My suggestion that she talks to her boss, air her concerns and potentially renegotiate her job conditions was met with absolute horror, despite it being a wholly legitimate course of action. The sad reality is that she would rather lose a job she had previously greatly enjoyed, rather than initiating any negotiation with her employer. In fact, the majority of vets feel far more confident undertaking complex surgery than asking for a pay rise. Why is this and what can we do about it?

Whilst the term ‘negotiation’ often conjures up images of a Del Boy-esque figure trying to bag himself a bargain, in reality subtle negotiation surrounds us every day and is a real skill that has to be acquired. Negotiation is involved in practically every aspect of our personal as well as work lives and yet it is an area that numerous people struggle with, especially vets. As a profession, we are notorious for undervaluing our time and those without any formal business training often feel uncomfortable approaching negotiable situations. There are probably a multitude of reasons for this, not least the fact that vets predominantly pursue the profession because of a love for animals, which is a far cry from being a hardened negotiator. However, an altruistic outlook on life doesn’t have to be odds with sharp negotiating skills.

So what do we actually mean by ‘negotiation’? In simple terms, we are referring to the formal discussion between people trying to meet an agreement. This applies to most activities, from buying a house to deciding where to go for lunch. It is no coincidence that the Spanish word for “business” is “negocios”, highlighting its importance commercially, and the technique applies to veterinary business just like any other.

A worked example: The job offer

To come back to the example of my friend, the terms and conditions of a potential or existing job are something we all must contemplate if we are to have a successful, or indeed, any sort of career. This is particularly pertinent for vets, due to the vast variability of working hours, conditions and perks of different jobs. Most new graduates wouldn’t dream of negotiating the terms of such an offer; many are just grateful to have received an one at all, some assume that the conditions are fixed and some are just too terrified, even if they have contemplated it. With competition for jobs increasing, top-notch negotiations are often needed to prevent yourself being sold short. If approached correctly, the mere fact that you are brave enough to discuss such a topic can demonstrate confidence in your own skills and employability.

The good news is that there’s no ceiling to how much you can improve these skills due to the complexity of such interactions. We’ve sought out seven simple steps to navigating a successful negotiation:

Everyone’s a winner. Two key types of negotiation have been recognised: distributive negotiation and integrative negotiation.  Distributive negotiation is also known as a win-lose strategy as it suggests that one party stands to lose out as there is a finite amount of the thing being distributed. Integrative negotiation is known as the win-win approach and is often viewed as a shared problem in which each party can stand to gain. Using an integrative approach and finding out what you can do for the other party, as well as what they can do for you, is always the best solution. If you are to continue to be in contact with the other party, integrative negotiation is the only way forward.

It doesn’t hurt to ask. The answer is often ‘yes’ more frequently than you might expect, so just go for it, however apprehensive you are.

Be prepared. This motto doesn’t only hold true for the Boy Scouts, as making sure you are clear on your aims and goals and considering the situation from the other point of view beforehand is extremely important. However, keep an open mind – be prepared to be flexible and leave room to take a different course if necessary. Too much of a rigid stance can be counterproductive and you can swiftly slide from win-win to lose-lose. Remember, knowledge is power, so arm yourself with as much information about what else is available to you and any facts that may help to back you up.

Confidence. This is often easier said than done, but being self-assured in your argument will instil confidence in other party. This can be improved by doing your research beforehand so that you feel absolutely certain that you know what you’re talking about.

Body language. What do you think of when you think of face-to-face communication? For most people it is the words spoken. However, research shows that body language is the greatest contributor to communication. In fact, 70% of communication is non-verbal, so your posture, gesticulations and eye contact should all help you convey your desired message.

It’s not all about the talking. Communication is only complete once the recipient understands the intent. To gauge whether this is happening, you have to listen to the other side. Negotiation is no good if both parties aren’t even sure what is being negotiated.

Never start a sentence if you don’t know how it ends. ‘Winging it’ hardly ever works when it comes to negotiating. It pays to structure your discussion in a logical order and not to stray off topic into dangerous territory.

As arduous as the veterinary training is, the majority of vets feel underprepared when it comes to negotiating. Undergraduate curriculums and CPD courses are increasingly offering chances to develop confident communication and nurture negotiation skills, and being aware of a few basic principles can kick-start the success. So, whether working in practice, running a business or just dealing with life’s daily challenges, the need to negotiate cannot be ignored and it is up to us to consciously culture the ability to do so.