Key negotiation and persuasion skills for L&D professionals

Julian Roche offers some negotiation tips for trainers. 

L&D practitioners need to be able to negotiate, persuade, and reach agreements. Sometimes these skills are required internally, where persuasion of senior decision-makers is needed to gain, maintain and enhance appropriate status for L&D within the organisation and to win respect for L&D professionals.

So too, with matrix management and agile working, the need arises now far more often than hitherto to persuade colleagues to act.

Equally, the need arises to convince clients of the wisdom, not just of L&D investment, but the particular form and structure it should best take to meet the needs of the client, which may be inadequately articulated, contradictory, impractical or unachievable within a proposed timescale or budget. And of the results that can reasonably be expected.

L&D is a service that needs to be argued for, its benefits explained and its costs defended against many critics. Negotiation skills, and even persuasion skills, therefore have an important, but all too often neglected, contribution to make to the development of the L&D skill suite.

The first skill required is targeting. Sometimes the person who carries the job title does not make the decisions, or is heavily influenced by another group of decision-makers. Persuading the right person or group is crucial, not least to avoid wasting time. Research into how the target organisation works will inevitably pay off.

L&D practitioners often work with HR departments, and they need to understand the conflicting pressures HR practitioners are under. 

Second, institutional understanding. It is a well-understood principle that the greater the knowledge of the people on the other side of the table, and their interaction with each other, the better chance of negotiating success. L&D practitioners often work with HR departments, and they need to understand the conflicting pressures HR practitioners are under.

L&D is not necessarily top of the agenda, however much L&D professionals would like it to be: understanding of the wider picture helps present L&D as an integral, essential part of a wider HR picture that ends up with the client believing in L&D as a solution to many of the organisation’s problems, not as a tedious necessity to ensure compliance with CPD requirements.

Third, personal understanding. Knowing the personal strengths and weaknesses of the L&D team as well as those of the people opposite will be of huge benefit in the negotiation ahead.

Acquiring CVs and organigrams where possible, conducting preliminary conversations, studying social media posts and analysing previous communications, job specifications and personnel changes will all benefit the negotiating team.

By the time the negotiation starts, the individuals on the other side of the table should be familiar, even if they have never been met in person before – and the right people will be sitting on the L&D side of the table, ready to commence discussions in just the right tone.

Fourth, knowledge of the product and the negotiation plan. Entering negotiations without detailed understanding of the L&D product, its SWOT by comparison to any known competition – especially that available to the client – and the right methods to communicate benefits and costs, together with a whole series of planned points of inflexion, such as unalterable requirements, places where concessions can easily be made, and additional resources that can be committed without too much time and cost, can cost the L&D organisation dearly.

All too often a wily client can outsmart an L&D negotiating team that has not thought through the implications of surrendering key aspects of – for example – pricing policies or timescales for delivery.

The introduction of elearning has raised the game enormously here as the number of variables in the typical L&D negotiation has expanded greatly from the traditional what, who, for how long and what cost – the possibility for inexperienced and inadequately trained L&D professionals to be outsmarted by their customers has grown exponentially.

And with outsourcing of content creation the norm, the consequences for internal organisational efficiency at the L&D end have never been greater.

Gaming through the negotiation internally before it starts, assigning roles where required – including for example the delicate manoeuvre of simulated internal disagreement, which can work really well for L&D professionals if used skilfully in negotiations – and being ready to handle every likely eventuality all combine to give the vendor, rather than the client, the upper hand in the negotiations.

Fifth, the traditional suite of negotiating skills taught in negotiation training courses are just as relevant as they have always been.

  • The ability to ask the right, probing questions, both open and closed
  • building rapport with the other side, including a deep awareness of cultural, organisation and personal sensitivities
  • utilising ergonomics, physiological attitudes such as visual and verbal cues, and IT to develop superior situational awareness
  • judging personalities and responding appropriately, both linguistically and emotionally, thereby building empathy and respect
  • fast and useful give and take in terms of the content of the negotiation itself; pacing discussion and responding nimbly to unexpected turns in the negotiations
  • managing conflicting expectations or assessments and disagreements
  • balancing the different components of the deal, and gaining commitment to an outcome that actually fits the original vendor goal

All of these are just as important for L&D professionals as for any others.

This skill set has always been essential. But the emerging landscape of rapidly changing L&D tools themselves is now demanding that they are honed to higher levels than hitherto and distributed more widely amongst the L&D team. Everyone is a persuader now.


About the author

Julian Roche is course director at Redcliffe Training.


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