Negotiating doesn’t look like you think it does

19 September 2017

When many people think of what a drowning person looks like, they think of the Hollywood tropes of someone splashing around, clearly in distress. 

Except that’s not what drowning looks like. It’s silent. It’s easy to miss. It’s one of the unfortunate reasons a large number of drowning deaths take place near other people.

Drowning doesn’t look like you think it does.

Something else that looks nothing like the Hollywood tropes is negotiating

In some ways, I’ve neglected the topic of negotiation on this blog. But being able to negotiate effectively is one of the most valuable sets of skills we can hone.

This isn’t just for our personal benefit. Being able to come up with creative ways to collaborate with other people, and being able to communicate with people so we make our positions and interests clear, is an effective way of helping other people get better outcomes when they deal with us. 

It’s true that there are instances where we have to negotiate for a slice of a fixed-sized pie. However, in many other instances, negotiating lets us work with others to make the pie bigger.

I recently read Venkatesh G. Rao’s entertaining book Be Slightly Evil, consisting of older articles from the ribbonfarm blog. Look beyond the title, and you’ll find that it’s a book that contains a lot of fascinating insights. 

One of the more interesting chapters in the book is titled “The basics of negotiation”. Rao points out the following:

“I learned the basics of routine, everyday negotiation by noticing something very puzzling. The people who seemed to negotiate most successfully looked and acted nothing like the tough, ice-cold types you see in Hollywood movies. One guy couldn’t hold eye contact, stuttered, and smiled too much. He aggressively played lowball and won every time. Another time, I observed a thoroughly scatterbrained and frivolous-seeming woman (it was not an act), who chattered and whined incessantly, trying to work a deal. She won big. On the flip side, I’ve met people who look and act like Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator, but end up blowing sure-fire great deals (while retaining their pointless icy calm of course).”


One of the key insights I took out of the chapter is this:

in routine negotiations, almost all the work is done away from the actual negotiating table, and before the critical face-to-face encounters. In many cases, the pre-work is so effective that the negotiation doesn’t happen at all, or if it happens, is a matter of ritual. The kind of tense, openly-adversarial zero-sum negotiation with a ticking clock that we see in movies is a very exceptional kind of negotiation.”

He continues:

“The most common negotiations… are the ones that don’t happen at all because a skilled person prevented things from getting to the table at all. Dull pre-work is substituted for live negotiation work, and instead of a fixed deadline, you get a smart person cherry-picking an ideal time to start the negotiations.”

“The best way to avoid negotiation altogether is to do so much pre-work that you understand the other parties’ options, costs and benefits better than they do, and can actually work out the ‘best for everybody’ solution before you even get to the table.” 

Rao goes into other aspects of negotiation, including the importance of:

  • information,
  • creativity,
  • trust, and
  • having a BATNA (“Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement”).

But the core insight – that negotiation doesn’t look like we think it does, and most of best outcomes are achieved through effective preparation – is a powerful one that is worth keeping in mind.



About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.

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