44 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
July 2019 | ISE Magazine 45
Mastering negotiation skills can benet engineers
Use of questions, empathy, storytelling help boost cooperation, team-building
By Dean Kaplan
46 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Mastering negotiation skills can benefit engineers
Engineers tend to be both highly intelligent and
master problem-solvers, but some can struggle to
navigate the complicated, interpersonal dilemmas
presented by high-stakes negotiations.
Logic that is helpful in solving an engineering
issue, such as putting emotion aside and focusing
on the evidence, can lead to serious mistakes in negotia-
Despite the stereotypes of engineers working long hours
alone, the complex problems faced by engineers today often
require teams working together to solve. Sometimes these
teams are spread out by distance and expertise and need to
work together for years to solve a problem. It’s important
that engineers learn and practice good negotiation skills.
As with anyone engaged in negotiations, some of the ne-
gotiation skills engineers need are:
Inquiry: The ability to ask questions
Active listening: The ability to listen to and under-
stand someone else’s concerns
Confidence: The ability to effectively offer suggestions
and solutions
Empathy: The ability to understand the goals, emo-
tions and objectives of other people
Storytelling: The ability to present one’s own goals and
objectives in a compelling manner
In most negotiations, all of these skills work together. For
example, if you only ask questions but never offer potential
solutions, youll appear indecisive and that will make nego-
tiations difcult. On the other hand, if you only put forth
confident opinions without asking questions, youll appear
arrogant, which also makes negotiations difcult.
Let’s look at some hypothetical examples of how engi-
neers use negotiation skills in their work.
Ask questions, listen for answers
During a design process for a new manufacturing system,
Jane found herself in a non-stop discussion over materials.
Every engineer involved in the discussion had a material
he or she wanted to use. After several meetings with no
resolution, Jane stopped suggesting her chosen material and
instead asked: “What is the goal of the new system and how
does it need to operate?” The question seems obvious, but
once it is asked and answered, each of the materials sug-
gested could be weighed against the goal.
The simple act of asking a question stopped a negotiation
process that was stuck on each party confidently advocating
for his or her own possible solution and instead began a col-
laborative process. If Jane had simply insisted on her own
opinion instead of asking a question, the team would still
be debating the material.
In another example, José and Steve are working on a
project together in which they need to connect two por-
tions of a machine. They have a disagreement about which
process to follow to complete the connection. As the lead
engineer, José could simply insist on his process, but instead
he asks Steve to explain his objections. By using active lis-
tening to hear Steve’s explanation, José is able to answer his
concerns and still carry out the procedure, saving both the
process and his working relationship with Steve.
Empathy and storytelling
Engineers not only need to learn to negotiate with each
other, they often need to negotiate with other departments
in a company. Sometimes an engineer may be attempting
to negotiate a technical solution to a problem with someone
who doesnt completely understand the issue. In these cases,
storytelling and empathy can both be powerful tools.
For example, James is unhappy with the customer re-
lationship management system his company uses. He asks
Zoe to modify the system to work more like a previous
system he used. However, James doesnt understand that
doing so will mean the CRM will no longer integrate with
the company’s email system. When Zoe tries to tell him
his request isnt possible, he insists it is because he’s used a
similar system.
Instead of trying to explain the technical difculties with
James’ request, Zoe uses analogies and stories to explain the
situation. She then asks James questions about his specific
problems with the CRM. By doing so, she can offer a solu-
tion that solves his problems while still allowing the system
to integrate with the company’s email.
While many people believe negotiation skills are inborn,
the truth is that, like any skill, negotiation can be taught.
Even people who consider themselves “naturals” at nego-
tiation often could use some training.
In my role as head of a collection agency, its important
everyone on my team have excellent negotiation skills. I’ve
found that teaching negotiation skills can be done in-house
or using outside help. Bringing in an outside organization
to train allows everyone, even supervisors, to gain from the
training and can be a refreshing change of pace for employ-
ees. There are organizations that specialize in negotiation
training, but you might also want to think outside the box
to create a fun experience for the staff.
For example, local theater or comedy groups often offer
negotiation and storytelling training. Escape rooms some-
times offer corporate events that stress negotiation skills.
Make sure to fully research any company offering to teach
negotiation skills and ask for references and recommenda-
tions from others.
If you choose to conduct negotiation training in-house,
refreshing or teaching these skills doesnt have to be an
July 2019 | ISE Magazine 47
all-day event. Simple and fun exercises such as
a game of charades can be worked into regular
company or team meetings to help demonstrate
skills just by using nonverbal cues.
Another popular activity is a version of arm
wrestling. Place pairs of workers in the classic
arm-wrestling pose, but dont use the word “arm
wrestle.” Tell the players they get a point each
time the back of the other persons hand touch-
es the table. Their goal is to get as many points
as possible individually; the other players score
does not matter.
Some pairs will realize that instead of wres-
tling, they can work together by flipping back
and forth so they each gain more points. Oth-
ers will engage in arm wrestling, thus earning
fewer points. This quick exercise demonstrates
two important concepts of negotiation: primar-
ily the need to rethink your assumptions (some
players assume the way to win is to make sure
the other person loses); and secondly, the need to
work together toward a solution.
To help employees think of storytelling as a
skill, you can take stories from the news, from
your own life or from inspirational stories and
use them to demonstrate both storytelling and
other negotiation skills such as empathy, trust
and flexibility. Again, this doesnt have to take
long and can be shared as part of a weekly email
or company meeting.
You can also ask team members to bring in
their own examples of stories that show nego-
tiation skills. This is a great way to learn more
about your team members and let them learn
more about each other, strengthening the key
negotiation skills of empathy and understanding
and creating a closer-knit workforce.
It may take strong persuasion skills of your
own to convince members of a busy engineer-
ing team they need to think about and develop
negotiation skills. However, doing so will benefit
your team, your company and the engineers’ in-
dividual careers as well.
Dean Kaplan is president of The Kaplan Group, a
commercial collection agency specializing in large claims
and international transactions. He has 35 years of
manufacturing and international business leadership
experience including a role as president/owner of a cus-
tom fiberglass manufacturer. Today, he provides busi-
ness planning and consultation to a variety of manufac-
turing companies.
7 skills to negotiate successfully
Here are some of the desired traits needed for successful negotiation,
according to Procurement Academy (www.procurement-academy.com).
Preparation. The more prepared you are in advance, the better your
chance of negotiating a result that will benefit all parties. That means
gathering the right information and preparing for all eventualities.
Patience. Staying on topic and preparing the right questions and
responses will lead to a better result.
Active listening. Be attentive to others’ verbal and nonverbal cues
during the conversation to seek areas for compromise. Don’t spend all
your energy defending your position.
Emotional control. Keeping a cool head and don’t let sensitive
issues turn into emotional responses.
Verbal communication. Choosing the right words to make your
case logically will go a long way toward winning over the other parties.
Problem-solving. Look for solutions that can benefit both sides and
not just focus on winning the negotiation.
Ethics and reliability. Trust is key to any effective deal; a good
negotiator must be able to keep his or her promises to fulfill the