Humans are socially reciprocal. We expect the behavior we give. If we’re nice, we expect others to be nice. If we’re mean, whether we expect it or not, that’s often what we get back. We also believe in proportional responses. It’s built into self-defense law. If someone punches you, you can punch them back in self-defense, but you can’t use deadly force. These same human principles of reciprocity and proportionality exist in negotiations.
Negotiations are often tense social engagements. When a negotiator comes at you hard, what’s your reaction? It wouldn’t be unusual, and you would be very human, if your response was reciprocal and proportional. They want to play tough and so you play tough back. That’s what’s expected. It’s not unusual for there to be a “tit for tat plus.” That is, if you hit someone, they may hit you back harder than you hit them. Think of it as proportionality, but with an accentuation — don’t hit me again or it will get even worse. We send messages with our words and actions.
But suppose in a hard negotiation, you don’t reciprocate and you’re not proportional or tit for tat plus in your response. Suppose you bring essential soft skills, like asking, listening, and silence. What happens then? What does that look like?
Great martial artists disappear when you come at them hard. What did Mr. Miyagi, the karate master from “The Karate Kid” film series, say? “When punch comes, don’t be there.”
When I’ve trained with world champion martial artists, they are not hard, they’re soft. They don’t say, “Oh yeah, bring it.” They breathe, they study you, they have you beat before you can move. They are soft and they evade. You push them and your arm disappears.
So now we’re back in the negotiation and your counterparty or their representative comes at you full force. Your human reaction? Demand back just as hard. The winning reaction? Ask and listen. “So you want this? Why?” When faced with anger, listen, and be silent. Don’t provide them with fuel for their anger. Make someone with an angry outburst run out of energy. Make them follow themselves. It’s awkward to follow an outburst, so don’t. Make them provide a response. Silence is powerful. As Mr. Miyagi said, “When punch comes, don’t be there.”
I know what you’re thinking: “But wait, I’ll appear weak. I won’t be zealously representing my client or myself.” If you respond to a hard negotiation with strength, you’ve fallen into the emotional trap set for you. Is that strength? Or is that now playing their game?
I was negotiating a deal recently full of emotion. I took the emotion off the table by asking what the other side wanted. These people hated each other and what they wanted more than anything else was to fight. I said to my client, “What do you really want?” The client really wanted to resolve the issue, but thought it would be fun to get some licks in. I said, “Fine, choose. You can’t have both. Which matters more?” The client picked resolution.
Fighting and getting licks in may be enjoyable for your client and yourself, but what you really want is something other than that. You and your client really want to reach the objective of the negotiation. It’s your job. Do you want resolution or do you want to inflict pain? You can’t have both.
And remember, if you choose to inflict pain, you’re going to get that back in spades, tit for tat plus. If your goal is to gain what you really want out of the negotiation, you have to be willing to forgo the pain route. Great martial artists don’t want to inflict pain. They don’t even want to fight. Because, as Mr. Miyagi said, “Fighting is bad, someone always gets hurt.”