The art of healthcare negotiation

Mention the word "negotiate" and most of us get an uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomach.

We may not realize that we are already good negotiators. We do it every day with our spouse, children, co-workers, boss, friends and others with whom we must communicate in order to obtain a desired outcome.

As a healthcare administrator, realizing that you already possess some negotiating skills can give you confidence and help you better manage your business dealings with physicians, employees, vendors, patients and insurance payers.

Get to know your "opponent."

While it isn't always necessary to think in adversarial terms, it is important to assess the other party's degree of flexibility before you delve into a big issue. If your opponent seems tough, strengthen your confidence by strengthening your position. Start by negotiating something small, like a time and place to hold the negotiation.  This will give you an idea of the other party's willingness for give-and-take. 

Identify options and gather facts before you start. 

Research options for achieving your desired objectives and come prepared to offer various proposals. Use facts to bolster your position. Working with data also helps lower emotions.

Be strategic. 

Use these tools to gain advantage in your negations:

  • Let the other party state their needs first. This gives you the opportunity to counter-offer if need be.
  • Anticipate arguments and plan for comebacks to change the momentum of the discussion. If your opponent's behavior is totally hard-nosed and inflexible, call them on it. Remind them that the objective is to arrive at an agreement you can both live with.
  • Reduce face time. If you know your opponent is a tough negotiator in person, limit the one-on-one time you spend together to reduce opportunities for your opponent to intimidate you. Conduct business by email or telephone instead.
  • Use time to your advantage. Decide in advance how you will buy more time if the negotiation is not going your way. Even when you're negotiating under a tight timeframe, don't reveal it. Turn the timetable on your opponents by saying you'll need about a week to consider the proposed agreement.
  • Use silence. As Time magazine journalist Lance Morrow says, "Never forget the power of silence, that massively disconcerting pause which goes on and on and may at last induce an opponent to babble and backtrack nervously."
  • Offer to write up the oral agreement you've reached. This allows you to control the language.
  • Know your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Understand the implications of failing to reach an agreement. This makes it easier to determine the worst-case terms you'll accept and makes it less likely you will agree to terms that you'll later regret.

In all negotiations, the goal is for everyone to feel they've gotten a fair deal. If you hold to this standard, your reputation as a negotiator will improve and your opponents will be more willing to work with you in the future.

Glenda Michael is vice president and senior relationship manager at First Independent Bank in Vancouver.