Whether it is President Barack Obama trying to negotiate debt levels with the Republicans or an engaged couple negotiating over who should be invited to the wedding — the principles are the same.

The problem is, often these principles are based on myths: false assumptions that may have been true at one time, but certainly are not now. We look at six negotiating myths:

1. There is a level playing field

The idea of a level playing field sounds good; but the reality is that everyone want it tilted their way. This is only natural, because no two parties are ever equal. Even if they wield roughly the same amount of power, it will be in different areas. 

It is better to assume that the other party has more power than you and prepare accordingly.

2. The goalposts won’t move

Planning for a negotiation is often based on establishing certainty — once we establish what cannot change, then we can know what’s negotiable. But the world can change so suddenly — totally altering that which previously seemed certain.

The answer is: speed. Negotiate with urgency and encourage the other party to take the same attitude.

Assume that factors totally outside your control could change the circumstances overnight, and move quickly!

3. The other side will play by the rules

In negotiations, where there is a long-term relationship between the parties, only someone who is naive or greedy would engage in unethical behaviour — unless, of course, the relationship and their reputation is not that important to them.

In one-off negotiations — especially across international borders — anything goes. So “playing by the rules” is a myth in itself. What are the rules of negotiating, anyway?  Everyone has a different opinion of what’s “fair”; often “unfair” is the complaint we make when we didn’t think of something first.

When you enter into negotiations, hope that the other side plays by the rules — and plan for them not to.

4. Negotiating across cultures is difficult

In all the work I do in sales and negotiation skills training, cross-cultural differences are one of the most regularly nominated concerns.

Though we need to be aware of the other party’s cultural sensitivities, no-one expects someone from another culture to be an expert in theirs. Often, just acknowledging your ignorance and asking is the best way. 

A lot of the time, cultural differences are blamed when personality differences are the real problem. This should be reassuring because most successful people have learned to deal with different personalities in their own culture.

People of compatible personality types and different cultures will often find it easier to negotiate than those of different personality types and the same culture.

Of course, any effective negotiating skills programme will cover areas like proximity (personal space), negotiating and non-negotiating cultures, time perception differences, direct and indirect communication and the like, but to ensure that stereotyping doesn’t become a trap, cultural awareness and personality awareness need to operate side-by-side.

5. Signing the contract is the end of the negotiation

In certain times, in certain cultures, it used to work this way. Now, the negotiation never stops. Even in the tightest worded contract, there will be areas subject to interpretation.

Some people are hagglers by nature while some see others get away with it and think, “why not me?” Expect this behaviour — and always hold something back to cater for it.

6. If you win, I lose

While everyone talks “win-win”, many people don’t believe it. Their primary experience of negotiating is, unfortunately, buying their house or car: classic zero-sum negotiation situations (where for one to win, the other must lose).

This is because very few people have an ongoing relationship with the people they buy their car or house from.

In most other negotiations, however, the ongoing relationship plays an important part — even if only for the length of the contract.

One of the most toxic outcomes is a perceived imbalance in the original deal by one party who sets about trying to “claw back” what was “ripped off” at every opportunity.

Many people have negotiated a deal they thought was too good to be true and realised later that it was! Often, your most important task is convincing the other party that they got a fantastic deal.

The skills to be an effective negotiator are within the reach of all of us. Whether it is in business, community or family life, the opportunities to use the skills come along every day.

Be aware of the negotiation myths, focus your energies on building strong relationships, look for the mutually beneficial outcome and you are on the road to negotiation success.