Every time you negotiate, you run a risk. Learn the advanced techniques to avoid the negative actions that have the potential to worsen the outcome.
Author: Robert A Felberg MD
Topic: Negotiation, Conflict management
When it comes time to negotiate, it’s every doctor’s greatest fear. You want to negotiate a fair compensation package based upon your well-researched market value report, but instead you end up getting so emotional that the deal is withdrawn, or the relationship is forever soured or harmed. Most of the time, if a physician contract negotiation goes bad it’s a good thing, as covered in another post. But sometimes, the fault lays squarely in your lap.
[Editor’s Note: To truly succeed in your medical career you’ll need three complementary skill sets. Of course, you need to be skilled in the practice of medicine. Secondly, you’ll need to understand physician personal finance. Finally, you’ll need a well-developed Professional and Medical Business skillset. Of all the professional skills, negotiation is the most important. This is one of an ongoing series from Physician Advocates and Medical Success Central introducing the science and practice of negotiation to healthcare professionals. Sign up for our newsletter to be kept up to date.]
How you act will have a direct role on the negotiated outcome. As discussed in another post, Doctors tend to have very poor conflict management styles. Some physicians tend to be immature and border on childish in their responses. They are also quick towards brinksmanship, and don’t understand the long-term role of relationship as a vital part of the final outcome.
You want the negotiation to focus on the mutual benefit and increased value of the parties involved, not on your negative actions.
One simple screening process is to ask yourself, “Am I removing the focus off the deal and onto my personal qualities in a negative way?” Are you representing your desired brand? Or, are you going to make your future boss wonder how much time they’ll need to spend defending you? It may be as simple as applying the golden rule– how would you judge the other party if they acted this way?
Now, I need to halt the discussion here and bring up the fact that sometimes you may feel you are being treated poorly and believe you must reply in kind. This form of conflict response is called “retribution or revenge” and it is considered a highly dysfunctional conflict resolution technique. Unfortunately, I see many physicians turn to this as a standard response. They believe they are being abused by the ED doc and abuse them back. They feel they have been insulted by a low initial offer and insult the other party back in a direct manner i.e.; “Your stupid little hospital can shove it if you think I’ll work for that little!”
The proper response to perceived abuse is to point out the action, express why it is abusive, and explain in a non-aggressive manner that you will not tolerate this type of behavior. Then, ask them to supply a proper behavior. If they do not act properly, state that negotiations can not continue as they are, and we will take a break. Then leave the table. They will come back and will understand the message. In the rare case they don’t, you’ve avoided a disaster and you move on with your BATNA [Editor note: I’ll discuss BATNA in a future post. Please be sign up for our newsletter and check on our blog posts frequently].
Here are some hints to help you avoid negatively affecting your negotiation:
- Always thank the other party when they offer a concession. Gaining a concession in a negotiation is a positive step to achieving your desired agreement. Always be gracious.
- Be wary of using “you” in an accusing way. Don’t put the other party on the defensive or make them feel unappreciated. Instead of saying, “You need to pay me more” try, “Can we do a little better?” Be certain to say “you” in a positive flattering manner as in, “I really like your program.”
- Bonus hint- If you really want to move a negotiation along use the word “our” to describe the negotiation, “I’m really looking forward to seeing how we can improve our clinic throughput.” Use this sparingly and with discretion. You don’t want to come across as disingenuous or manipulative.
- Avoid threats. Threats, even when backed up will almost always backfire. Your long-term relationship will sour, and you will come across as shrill. Eventually, the other party will tire of the threats and call you on them. No one likes to be held hostage to a demand. Try this- instead of, “If you can’t come up with something better, I’m going to walk”, consider , “I really like your program, but the compensation is not what I’m being offered at other programs. Is there any way to improve the salary offer?” The message is clear- I have other offers, but it’s not presented as a threat, rather as a fact that we will work through together to mutual solution.
- Avoid Brinksmanship. Do not push a situation to the edge on purpose with the hope of gaining a big concession. Avoid pushing to the point of deadline or collapse of a deal. If you are buying a house and you know the other party must sell by a certain day to get the mortgage on their new house, then go ahead and use that leverage to your best advantage. But, if you expect to maintain a relationship afterwards, this type of technique must be used with caution or avoided altogether.
- Be Honest. Do not lie about the services you can provide. Expect the same from the other party. Remember, everything related to duty will be included in the doctor contract and you will be held accountable if you are in breach. Be up front if there are any issues- credentialing, license, start date, hours, call schedule, physical limitations, etc.
- Do not get overly emotional. Becoming visually angry, anxious, tearful, or distraught will only harm your negotiation and give you a reputation as a bully, pushover, or another less than ideal characterization. Remember, It’s OK to have emotions. It not OK to let emotions have you. If you find yourself running into an issue of controlling your emotions, call for a break. You can ask for a bathroom or water break. You can just say, “I need to take a few minutes break here. This is going a little longer than I thought, and I have a quick call to make.” Whatever you do, don’t return to the table until you are in control. Don’t worry about how the other party will react. Chances are, they will be sitting there in silence for a few anxious minutes thinking that they soured the deal. They may even offer you an apology or concession the second you come back.
- Learn how to step away from the table with grace and without prematurely ending the negotiation. We all know how to do this. Your cousin calls you and insists you come over for his bowling team awards dinner. You’ve got other things you’d rather do, but you still may decide to go. So, you say, “sounds good, but I need to check with my wife first.” Then later, after considering other options, you finalize plans.
You can do the same with your offer. If you come to a deadlock, walk away from the table in a polite manner. Imagine you are looking at a great practice, but you want to earn more. However, even if they don’t up the offer, you’d still like to take the job. You can say, “Thanks for discussing the position. I’m excited by it. I have another offer on the table and they will be calling me on Tuesday.” Then later that week you call and say “I really like your program and want to join your organization. But, the other program is offering 15k more. Is there anyway we can improve the salary offer?” Even if the offer is not matched, you set a gracious way to concede earlier in the conversation. You can say, “I’m disappointed that we’re not able to come up with a better salary, but I really like your program and I’m willing to join at the salary we discussed.”
There are certain standards of behavior that are expected when the negotiation goal includes strengthening the long-term relationship. These will differ significantly from other bargaining scenarios like selling a used car or haggling at a flea market. Keep in mind to always screen your behaviors and consider the “golden rule.” Also, watch for the behaviors listed above and try the techniques suggested to correct any issues. Certainly, this is something that improves with experience and you will get better at it with practice. Remember, the negotiation goes both ways and you should not tolerate bad faith or bad actions from your negotiating partner.
The great thing about negotiation, just like other physician professional and business skills, is that they can be learned and mastered. As you plan your next negotiation, be certain to learn your market value, up your skill set, and consider taking a CME approved negotiation course designed for physicians. With study, hard work, and practice you can become a great physician negotiator. You will be able to reach your dreams and succeed… really succeed.
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What do you think? Should I even care this much about what the other side thinks? Have you ever gone over the line in a negotiation and caused it to go bad? What did you do to recover? How have you dealt with bad behaviors from the other side? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.