Part 1: Maintaining your cool – while making your adversary sweat
By Deanna Petersen, Chief Business Officer of AVROBIO, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
It’s back-to-school season, and that puts me in the frame of mind to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in a long career focusing on one of the most daunting pillars of the biopharma BD world: the negotiation.
First, a metaphor: imagine a wobbly card table with a dozen rubber balls in the center. Negotiating a BD deal is like keeping all those balls on the table – sometimes for months – even when you’re buffeted with what feels like gale-force winds. From time to time a ball will start to fall, and you have to find a way to get it back on the table without toppling the rest.
As I often say, there are a million more reasons for deals not to get done than to get done, so it’s a small miracle whenever one gets over the finish line!
To successfully reach agreement, you have to do plenty of hard digging into the science and the business terms of the deal. That goes without saying. But it’s equally important to put time and energy into “softer skills,” including the nuance of negotiation. This is not a skill that comes naturally to most of us. It must be studied. It must be practiced.
I’m going to share my hard-earned tips on negotiations in two parts. This blog post will focus on body language: reading the other side and keeping your own cards close to the vest. The second blog post will dive into the crucial arenas of maintaining (or gaining) leverage and closing the deal.
Keep your eyes and ears open
When I enter a negotiation room, all my senses are alert. I listen and watch intently.
Books such as “The Power of Body Language” and “The Yes Factor” by Tonya Reiman can give you a head start on the fine art of reading the room. I’ve also learned a lot through the years from simple observation.
Honestly, with most people, you can read them like a book. You can tell from the way their hands fidget that they are feeling stressed or under pressure. You can sense from their sidelong glance at a colleague that they are feeling uncertain. You can assess how anxious they are from how often they rub their eyes, their hair or their leg (an unconscious behavior that is often a way of self-soothing).
You can learn a lot from listening, too. When I first started negotiating with one of my former colleagues, she had a habit of interrupting the other side to chime in with her own ideas. I understood her excitement, but her interruptions frankly made it hard for me to read our counterparts on the other side of the negotiating table. “Please, always let them finish before you start talking,” I asked her. “Everything they say is a cue and a clue for us, and when people are nervous, they often say more than they should.” She got it right away, and it paid dividends.
Use your insights wisely
When you get a flash of insight into the other side’s state of mind, you have to decide when to use it. I am a big proponent of springing a surprise to catch the other team off guard.
“It sounds like you’re under a lot of time pressure,” I might say.
If I’m right, I can typically tell from their body language; it’s usually easy to read the anxiety and frustration of negotiators who thought they were keeping their cards close to the vest – but weren’t. Creating anxiety on the other side is one of my favorite tools. When people are anxious, they tend to give in more.
Never let them see you sweat
The corollary to all this, of course, is that if they’re good negotiators, they are studying you, as well.
This is where you really need to practice self-control. With time and effort, I have mastered the art of sitting absolutely still. I do not fidget. I do not slouch in my chair. I do not tilt my head. I look squarely in the eyes of each speaker in turn.
My kids will affirm that I was not always this controlled. They have seen me lose my cool before. It even happened – once, early in my career – at a negotiating table. It was a deal with GSK that we were trying to renegotiate (renegotiations are the hardest of all because as the smaller company you typically have no leverage). Things were not going well. The other side absolutely refused to budge or even entertain solutions to the problems we were trying to solve. Pushed to my breaking point, I stood up, leaned across the table, pointed my finger in my adversary’s face, and told him they were not being a good partner.
He tipped back his chair. Slowly, a smile started to appear on his face.
And then I realized what had happened. He had been goading me the whole time, trying to make me lose my cool, and I had fallen for it. My adrenaline was racing; I found it hard to concentrate for the rest of the session. He had effectively neutralized me, at least for that day. I thought about it after I got home, and that was the day I decided that I’d never let that happen again. I would always work to keep my cool – to maintain control.
I began to train myself to have neutral mannerisms. I watch the way I sit, the way I talk, the expression (or lack thereof) on my face. My heart might be racing underneath, but (hopefully) you wouldn’t know it if I don’t want you to.
Beth Rogers, the founder of PointTaken, a presentation training consultancy, helped me get on the right track with this more neutral body language, coaching me through proper posture and expression to achieve maximum influence. The poker face I learned on my own, with a great deal of disciplined practice.
Open up (just a little)
This tip might sound contradictory to “never let them see you sweat,” but in fact, it’s the perfect complement. While you need to maintain a poker face throughout your negotiations, it’s also important to develop a rapport with the folks on the other side of the table.
Here’s another truism of mine: people do deals with people they like. After all, a BD deal is a partnership; you’re agreeing to work together in some form over some period of time. You need to feel a bit of kinship to move the discussions forward – and to ensure a successful collaboration after the deal has closed.
Building this type of rapport is a bit harder to pull off in the Zoom era, but when you’re meeting face-to-face, there are breaks throughout the day when you can connect on a more personal level with the other team. It can feel awkward to toggle between chit-chat and steely eyed resolve, but it’s worth doing.
I remember one particularly challenging deal where we managed to forge a solid working relationship despite a series of incredibly intense negotiating sessions where everyone felt like tearing out their hair. After we signed, the other side (Aventis) invited us to a celebration party and gave us a gift: a gorgeous, hand-carved wooden vase from a local artisan, accompanied by an original poem to thank us for our all our work. The gist was that while the negotiations were long and hard, they never doubted, and in fact thanked us, for our professionalism and our commitment to get the job done.
So much for my steely demeanor: I was so moved, I (almost) had tears in my eyes. It was a wonderful tribute to what you can get done when you forge a personal connection even while maintaining the utmost discipline at the negotiating table.
I’m confident these techniques will help you in the negotiating room, but they’re not enough on their own. In my next blog post, I’ll share some pragmatic advice on how to get the leverage you need to strike the best possible deal. Until then, practice that poker face!