Winning at negotiation means learning what to bring to the table–and what to leave at home.
For better or for worse, I’ve spent the past 20 years helping people make better business deals. Some of those deals involved large sums; some didn’t. I’d like to use this 50th column to offer personal observations about life at the bargaining table.
First, to paraphrase psychologist Albert Ellis, “No one has to be nice to you.” To be thick-skinned yet sensitive to the innards of others is a great gift for any negotiator. Simply being “sensitive” isn’t. There’s a certain rough-and-tumble to making deals. Make no mistake: Points are awarded for artful deception, omission and obfuscation. If you’ve got your heart on your sleeve while everyone else is close to the vest, it will not be fun for you. No one goes through life without negotiating. The sooner you get over it, the better.
I’m always astonished at how quickly participants polarize when negotiating. In my business community, the entertainment industry, each category of participant–whether it’s an agent, a producer, the talent, an executive or a manager–is subject to a predictable set of political pressures. Yet so many deal-makers have no clue! People take positions like crack recruits falling into order, even when the week before, they had the same exact concerns as their new “enemy.”
I can’t say that bargaining brings out the worst in people, but it often brings out the pettiest. Whether it’s through ego or trivial personal dislikes, all too often, opponents feed each others’ neuroses. There’s no need to become emotionally involved. Think big picture. The vast majority of deals will close within a well-known commercially acceptable range, give or take a little. The stronger negotiators move closer to the top of the range, the weaker sink to the bottom. That’s all. It’s more about circumstance and relative bargaining power, not the characters involved. Why make it so personal?
Above all, keep learning. Take a chance. Try a tactic or approach that’s new for you. After all, the more tools at your negotiation workstation, the better. Do postmortems on your negotiations. Be honest with yourself. Everyone can improve their game, and you’re probably no exception. If you can get reliable feedback, then I’m envious. It’s so rare. Like poker, one of the lousy things about business is that you rarely get to see the other person’s hand. Without that feedback, negotiation becomes a test with a raw score but no scale.
Deal-making is the ultimate people skill. It’s not just about getting more of what you want in business; it’s about getting more out of life. Good deal-makers are more prosperous, influential and confident (at least publicly). And for great deal- makers, negotiation is indeed a beautiful thing. So teach your children to negotiate. And pray they don’t use it against you.