Go back

Negotiation stations

Image: Aidan Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Tips for negotiating with funders and partners over research projects disrupted by Covid-19

With the coronavirus crisis leaving many research projects in a precarious position, having strong negotiation skills has perhaps never been so important. Researchers have found themselves asking funders for extensions and renegotiating disrupted collaborations, or even having to set up quick-turnaround partnerships to respond to the pandemic.

From 2010 to 2015, Melissa Davies was head of partnerships and development at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, where she was responsible for building partnerships and securing funding for projects. She has 20 years’ experience as an independent negotiator and consultant, including running negotiation training for researchers at organisations such as the European Molecular Biology Organization.

Here, Davies explains what makes a good negotiator, and how researchers can develop the right mindset and hone their skills.

Why do researchers need good negotiating skills?

In our complex world, there is very little one can achieve alone; research is an example where interconnectedness and collaborations are fundamental. Whatever kind of research you are involved in, you will benefit from negotiation skills. You may want to set up a collaboration with a hospital, an industry or other research groups; you may wish to create an outstation for your fieldwork; you may need to gain access to specific communities; you will surely require administrative support and technical help within your institution. These are a few examples of areas where researchers need to negotiate to create collaborations and partnerships and to engage people in their work. This is fundamental: as soon as you need people’s buy-in to achieve a result, negotiation will engage people in the process.

Many researchers are having to renegotiate projects because of Covid-19. What is the best way to approach this?

If you believe there could be interest from your funders to extend their support, be transparent on your need and focus on the conditions under which they will consider the extension. If your research has nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is going to be harder to renegotiate funding while so much money is being geared towards Covid-related topics and projects. When outside conditions have changed so drastically, it is important to think on a strategic level about whether this is the right moment to renegotiate a partnership or whether there are other priorities to which you can adapt. Being able to adapt and being flexible doesn’t mean giving up what you ultimately want; it means that at times it is in your best interest to postpone the request.

What about negotiations over new projects and partnerships?

Be observant and aware of any opportunities. Widen the scope of potential funding partners—think out of the box. This can be made easier when you realise partners do not necessarily need to share the same interest as you. If you think interests and goals must be shared, you will tend to try to convince them that what is important for you should be important for them. Everyone’s interest should be taken into account. Be creative and flexible. Money may not be the only thing that could help your project: staff, time, space, training, equipment and other such advantages can also be included in the negotiation.

Could you give an example?

At the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, I was once involved in finding funds for a life science project. To diversify sources of funding I started talking to several new prospects, including a large multinational. I contacted them to ask what would need to happen for them to partner with my institute. I never asked for money. They offered top-class marketing advice, which proved very helpful for communicating our project. The same project took me to a foundation. Listening carefully to the foundation’s needs, I realised that their priorities lay in another field than the one on which I was focused. We started talking about a new project—on popularising science—for which they gave substantial support. If I had gone in and just tried to convince them to fund our initial project, I would have just been told ‘no’.

What are the most important things to bear in mind before entering into negotiations with a potential partner?

  1. Preparation: you need to be crystal clear on your goal, on your negotiating conditions, on what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable. It is easier to communicate a goal that you have thought about and believe in than one that you are possibly less sure about.
  2. The right mindset: always bear in mind that the other person may have the potential to be an enabler for you to get closer to what you want. This mindset will influence the way you behave, talk and interpret what the other party says. However, if you enter into a negotiation thinking the other side is out to get you, you will be on the defensive, which in turn will influence your body language and how you interpret what they say. You are looking for solutions and ways to collaborate, not fighting to defend a position and to counter-attack.
  3. Strong communication and listening skills: in a negotiation, the solution comes from the other person. You therefore need to understand what is important for them, what their interest might be and what they need. Ask questions until their needs and concerns are as clear as possible. Avoid making assumptions. You also need to let the other party know what you would like and make sure you listen carefully to how they react. Observe what they say and what they don’t say.

What is the most common mistake researchers make when negotiating?

Researchers are true experts in their field, so they often have a natural tendency to try to convince others of their position. An expert functions with a logic of truth, whereas a negotiator functions with a logic of interest. It can be useful to ask yourself: ‘Is it more important to get what I want or to be right?’ Arguing your point and trying to convince the other party means you are focused on yourself, not on listening or asking questions.

Any final tips?

Respected and good negotiators have a communication style that is cooperative, open and flexible until the final step. Negotiation is not only about an agreement and a contract; it is also about a lasting, sustainable relationship. Sometimes people may get a really good deal but will damage the relationship in the process. It is better to have a less advantageous result that is actually put into place than a fantastic agreement where nothing happens—or worse still, one where you struggle constantly with getting the terms of your agreement respected.