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The 5 Critical Moments in a Negotiator’s Journey to Excellence

By |August 22, 2016


Do you want to make the transition to being an excellent negotiator? No matter where you are on the journey, here are 5 critical steps that you'll need to take along this path. 

1 – The Decision to Get Better

I’m going to be blunt: Telling yourself that experience is the best teacher is a passive attitude.  It also leads to laziness of not working consciously to get better.  It creates the opportunity for others to pass you by.  There’s an old saying that some people have 10 years of experience and other people have 1 year of experience 10 times.

Interestingly enough, in a piece Eric Barker recently wrote, Eric points out that the decision to be in it for the long-term is critical as well.

Doing it a lot is not enough.  Closing a lot of deals isn’t enough.  A while back I was speaking to a former GM of the Washington Redskins.  He was telling me that negotiation was easy.  He negotiated contracts all the time and came to agreements all the time.  I can tell you that in the timeframe he was GM the Redskins didn’t win much.  Ok, so you closed the deal: how good was the product you closed on? How good was the implementation of your deal?


2 – Come to Grips With “No”

You need to come to grips with “no”. I’ll never forget the moment I came to grips with “No”.  I was an FBI hostage negotiator on my way to conduct a training session in Phoenix. While walking through an airport book store, browsing the business section.  I see this book, “Start With No” (by Jim Camp) and literally do a double-take.  “Start With No”?  That’s crazy!  I have to look at this.

Jim’s whole negotiation philosophy was to, from the outset, make the counterpart (Jim used the word “adversary”) feel free that they could say “no”.  (This is the same as what Dan Shapiro – a brilliant and cool Harvard guy – writes about regarding autonomy in “Beyond Reason”. He sees autonomy as both a lens and a lever.)

Jim said in his book people will die to preserve their right to say “no”so make it clear from the outset that it’s ok if they do and they will be more relaxed and more likely to make a deal. This is reason the world has hostage negotiators in the first place.  We had SWAT teams for quite some time before we had hostage negotiators.  SWAT would show up and say “Surrender or die.”  Lots of people died preserving their right to say “no”.    


3 – Stop Being The Hostage of “Yes”

It’s a set-up question I ask all the time: “If ‘yes’ is success, then what is ‘no’?” Nearly all the time people answer “failure.”  My answer: “Who says ‘yes’ is success?”

There are 3 kinds of “Yes”. Confirmation, commitment and counterfeit.  People try to trap us all the time using a breadcrumb trail of “confirmation – yes” to lure us into the bear trap of “commitment – yes”.  Consequently, we all immediately get defensive over “commitment – yes”.

The flip-side is “Yes” has been identified as one of the most beautiful words in the English language (if not the most beautiful word – and in any language.)  You get all googly-eyed when you hear it don’t you. Wanting to hear "Yes" takes you hostage. A direct contradiction to how you feel when someone is trying hard to hear it from you. 

4 – Empathy is Not Sympathy (or Weakness)

I don’t have to “feel what you feel” to know what you feel.  I don’t have to agree with what you feel to know what you feel.  This was taught to me when I first became a hostage negotiator.

Then, when I saw it was the cornerstone for the Harvard negotiation philosophy I knew:

  1. It was right.  How else could 2 such supposedly different type of negotiation methodologies in wildly different environments agree on a foundational issue?
  2. hostage negotiation applies to business.

5 – Emotions are “It”.

You want to know where the edge comes from in negotiations in general and in the specific negotiation you’re in now? Their emotions (and yours).  

This is going to sound harsh: If you think people are rational and therefore make rational decisions you’re holding yourself back.  You’re hurting yourself. You’re leaving money on the table.  

To paraphrase Obi-wan Kenobi to a young Luke Skywalker “Take a step into a larger world.”

You will love it.

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