Megan Merritt, an attorney at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll in Cedar Rapids, spends most of her workday negotiating. She says it’s a skill that’s less about innate ability and more about practice and preparation.
Before any negotiation, Merritt researches everything she can about a case.
“You have to do your homework,” she said.
It’s not a statement she takes lightly — she recently learned how to build a piece of farm equipment to better understand the specifics of a case.
“When I asked a client to teach me how to build a planter, they laughed at first. We spent six hours going over the process,” she said.
Preparation isn’t exclusively about learning technical skills, it also involves learning about the person on the other side of the table. Understanding what’s important to the opposing side tells a defense attorney like Merritt what tools she can use in the negotiation. “The practice of law is about interacting with people — getting information, conveying information and building relationships,” she said.
It’s a good fit for Merritt, who considered becoming a psychologist before deciding to enroll in the University of Iowa College of Law.
She understands that even seemingly small things, like hand gestures, can affect a negotiation.
“People read your body language to tell what you’re thinking and feeling.” She said things like crossed arms and “stop” hand gestures can unintentionally sour the tone.
“Little things, like constantly clicking your pen, can interfere with the message you’re trying to get across,” she said.
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Merritt returned to her alma mater as a mock trial coach to help students fine-tune their negotiation skills. She teaches future lawyers that there will always be things you can’t control in a negotiation, so it’s important to focus on what you can.
“How you present yourself is one of them. You have to seem confident and competent,” she said.
She also teaches the all-important skill of editing, which helps students get their point across without losing people’s attention. Being clear and direct is something she recommends for any type of negotiation.
“Don’t say something in 15 pages, if you can say it in five,” she said.
Another important skill is the ability to “zoom out” to see the whole picture. Merritt says this helps her come up with creative agreements.
“There might be something of value the other side wants that’s of no cost to my client,” she said. For example, a confidentiality agreement or something as simple as an apology has held value that Merritt used while negotiating.
She says thinking outside the box is something anyone who’s facing a negotiation can do.
“Don’t be afraid to be creative. The chips in front of you aren’t necessarily the only chips you have.”
Merritt says she often feels like a counselor due to the emotions involved in helping people find common ground, but that resolution can be rewarding.
“Negotiations don’t have to be an adversarial process,” she said.
Books on negotiation:
Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss & Tahl Raz
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, Bruce Patton
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99 Negotiating Strategies: Tips, Tactics & Techniques Used by Wall Street’s Toughest Dealmakers by David Rosen
Quotes on negotiation:
“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” — John F. Kennedy
“If you are negotiating, you must do so in a spirit of reconciliation, not from the point of view of issuing ultimatums.” — Nelson Mandela
“The capability of negotiating … is something that means you not only have to understand fully what you believe and what your national interests are, but, in order to be a really good negotiator, you have to try to figure out what the other person on the other side of the table has in mind.” — Madeleine Albright
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