How negotiation skills help leaders defuse work conflicts

A good compromise means that everyone gets a little something, but no one is completely satisfied. Getting a clean resolution requires careful listening and plenty of tenacity.


An important, and sometimes overlooked, leadership skill is the ability to navigate difficult conversations and achieve outcomes that are perceived as a win-win. Both sides come out having given up something and having gained something, too. Ruffled feathers are smoothed. Trust is established. Esprit de corps is achieved. This kind of masterful conflict resolution is really a form of negotiation.

How comfortable are you with negotiating?

As leadership coaches we regularly hear clients confess that they’re not great at negotiating for what they want, whether it’s for themselves, their teams or the business.  However, one could argue we’re all born negotiators because as kids we learned the skill intuitively and used it often.

Negotiation skills are deployed daily in every sphere of life, but play an especially important role in business and professional settings. Good negotiations contribute to business success because they help you build better relationships and deliver higher-quality solutions.

When it comes to resolving difficult conversations at work, the ones where emotions are running high or positions are entrenched, there are some specific negotiation techniques that can turn unproductive tension into healthy debate and, ultimately, an acceptable solution. With practice, these conflict resolution skills will become a valuable addition to your professional toolkit, and will set you apart as an effective and empathetic leader.

The power of active listening

Recently, we were inspired by a MasterClass video called “The Art of Negotiation” by Chris Voss, now CEO of Black Swan Group and formerly the FBI’s lead hostage and kidnapping negotiator. Arguably, there is no higher stakes—or higher stress—form of conflict resolution than hostage negotiation. But his strategies for active listening and language adjustment apply equally well to resolving emotionally-charged conflict in the workplace. Apply his tips to see real-time results that will lead to better relationships, higher-quality solutions and a stronger bottom line.


Mirroring is the repetition of key words that another person uses in conversation. We all experience involuntary responses, called mirror neurons, that are triggered when interacting in conversation. They are the physiological foundation for empathy. The mirroring technique activates these mirror neurons to show someone that you’re listening and that you understand them.

According to Voss, mirroring is most effective when you repeat one, two or three of the last words your counterpart has spoken. Doing so creates a sense of similarity, common ground and understanding that facilitates the bonding necessary for two people (or sides) to compromise. As long as your counterpart keeps talking, linking thoughts and giving clues about their boundaries, you keep the upper hand to steer the negotiation.


This is another active listening technique, similar to mirroring, but instead of repetition it relies on intuition in order to identify internal states. You want to verbally acknowledge that you comprehend how they are feeling by identifying and naming the emotion(s) underlying their statements.

Voss describes the relationship between an emotionally intelligent negotiator and their counterpart as “essentially therapeutic.” In practice that means using sentence starters like:

  • It seems like
  • It sounds like
  • It looks like

Ex: “It sounds like trust is something that’s important to you.”

After your statement, pause to let your words land and let the label sink in. Your counterpart will fill in the silence. According to Voss, every fourth verbalization should be followed by a label.

This type of speaking can be used to establish a relationship of trust at any level, and is an effective way to win over others. And these negotiation techniques work equally well with your teams, your clients—and even your kids and spouses!

While they may feel awkward or sound unnatural at first, they are bona fide approaches to successfully working through thorny, uncomfortable conversations.  Negotiation is called an ‘art’ for a reason. It takes practice and finesse. But consciously working to improve communication skills with active listening creates well-rounded leaders who can effectively advocate for themselves and others.


Mary Olson-Menzel is the founder and CEO of MVP Executive Search & Coaching, and co-founder of Spark Insight Coaching. 

Mel Shahbazian is co-founder of Spark Insight Coaching and is senior executive coach with MVP Executive Search and Coaching.

This post originally ran on PR Daily in January of 2021.


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