Absolutely. No doubt about it. You can be a more effective negotiator this coming year provided you do one thing differently. Do it faithfully and you’ll:

  • Make deals that could otherwise slip through your fingers;
  • Create—and capture—more value in the agreements that you reach; and
  • Resolve small differences before they escalate into costly disputes.

But there is a catch. This isn’t like those “weird little tricks” with bogus advice about losing belly fat or improving your credit score. This requires some work on your part. Not a lot, but you’ll have to keep at it. Given the upside, the return on your effort will be high.

The assignment is simple: keep a journal tracking every negotiation you undertake in 2014, large or small. It could be securing a promotion, dealing with a difficult customer, or saving a few bucks on your cable service.

Start your entry before you go to the bargaining table. Lay out your strategy. Consider best and worst case scenarios. Reckon your walk away. Try to figure out what might be acceptable to the other side. Document the whole process from how you prepare, what unfolds in the back-and-forth, the outcome, and finally, of course, what lessons you learn along the way.

Keeping a real-time journal is essential. Memories are imperfect. Telling details can get lost. If you reconstruct the story after the fact, the outcome may seem inevitable. Brief notes, taken along the way, will illuminate points where you might have taken things in a different direction.

You don’t have to write a treatise. For simple transactions, an outline will do. But putting your plan down on paper pays off three ways:

  1. An explicit plan forces you to weigh tradeoffs in advance. Negotiating a new position, you’ll have to figure out how much salary you’d give up in return for stock options. That could be a tough choice. Analyzing pros and cons beforehand is a whole lot better than making a heat-of-the-moment decision.
  2. Imagining different scenarios enhances your creativity. It’s like limbering up before a tennis match. You get your head in the game and become more agile.
  3. Planning also a healthy reminder of what you don’t know about the other side’s interests and intentions. Negotiation is an exploratory process. Be ready for surprises, pleasant and otherwise. Don’t treat your assumptions as hard facts.

Some of my posts in coming months will dig more deeply into negotiation preparation and strategic analysis. The more complex the transaction, the more detailed your journal entry should be. But get started now. Making quick notes as you negotiate is far better than nothing. Over the course of the year you’ll gather data that will reveal strengths to build on, as well as weaknesses that you’d better address.

Long-term learning. Think about it: judging performance in any arena requires a baseline. For your annual physical, the doctor compares your latest cholesterol numbers with last year’s results to see if they’re headed in the right direction. You likewise look for trends and patterns over time in weighing investments. The same kind of tracking pays dividends for negotiators. But the only way to learn from experience is having an honest record of your performance.

I’m talking about doing more than calculating your bargaining batting average, where you’d compare the number of agreements made to deals attempted. For one thing, that’s a poor measure of success. If you always come to agreement, there are two explanations and both are bad. Either you’re being too agreeable and saying yes to terms you should refuse. Or you’re being too cautious only going after sure-thing opportunities.

So don’t just look at outcomes. Go back to your notes and evaluate how you well you strategized at the outset. Did your negotiations generally play out as you expected? If you tend to be overly optimistic (or pessimistic), that’s something that you can fix. Likewise you may see that you’re better at certain kinds of negotiations than others (value-creating opportunities, for example, rather than haggles over price). Again, you can work on that going forward.

You can help yourselves now by enlisting a friend to keep a journal of his or her experience. Compare your notes regularly. By coaching one another, you’ll sharpen your strategy going into a negotiation. And by debriefing together, you’ll have twice as many cases to learn from.

So, yes you certainly can be a better negotiator in 2014. Yes, some work is involved, so you might be tempted to slack off. To keep you going here’s a carrot and a stick:

  • If you’re diligent, you’ll make more and better deals. You’ll finish the year with a sense of accomplishment and greater confidence in your ability.
  • If you fail to make this small effort, but negotiate with people who are serious about enhancing their skills . . . well, best of luck.