You are an outstanding negotiator

| July 8, 2018

The heading of this blog is likely to elicit dramatically different responses from readers. Specifically, one group of readers will be genuinely modest and respond: “Noooo, stop it, I’m a terrible negotiator!” We’ll refer to this group as insecure negotiators.

Another group is more likely to instead respond with an affirmative: “Of course I am! Tell me something I don’t already know!” We will refer to this group as confident negotiators.

And here’s the insight of the day; confident negotiators are rarely outstanding negotiators.

And If you are a confident negotiator then I probably just lost your attention, which ironically reinforces the points we will be making in this blog. Hang in there!

Let me demonstrate with a quick exercise. Please write a list of 20 names of random people that you may or may not know personally, then answer the following questions.

Would you say that you:

·         Are smarter than the average person on the list?

·         Are more creative than the average person on the list?

·         Are better at communicating than the average person on the list?

·         Are more objective than the average person on the list?

·         Are more skilled at seeing the big picture than the average person on the list?

·         Are better at listening (when you want to) than the average person on the list?

·         Are better at getting along with others than the average person on the list?

·         Have a more accurate sense of right and wrong than the average person?

·         Would be better suited to lead a country, army or company than the average person?

·         Are better at influencing people than the average person on the list…?

How many questions did you answer “yes” to? How do you think the other people on your list would answer the same questions…?

I often run this exercise with groups of participants. As long as they are from a western culture and can answer anonymously, 80-100% of them will rank themselves to be “better” than the average person in the room on each question… regardless of whether they know the other people in the room!

In fact, for each question, there is a surprising number of individuals who rank themselves as “best”! These results indicate a large number of participants are wrong in their self-assessment.

So what is going on here?

One insight is that all the questions above ask us to quantify traits or skills that are inherently difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to compare. Working out whether we are better than someone else at running is easy. But we have no objective criteria for working out who is better at “big picture thinking”.

A second insight is that we find most of these attributes and skills desirable. Our ego has a sneaky habit of making sure that we see ourselves as we would like to be as opposed to who we really are.

A third insight is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We look at our own experience and realise that others don’t have the same experience as us. We assume that means they would have to know less or are less skilled. However, we conveniently fail to acknowledge that others will have, and can draw upon, experiences that we don’t have.

A final insight is that effective influencing of others is rarely overt. A skilled negotiator goes through life letting everyone else believe that it is they who control the outcomes. Thus the efforts and activities of truly masterful negotiators go largely unnoticed.

In contrast, a person who beats his chest and announces “I won the negotiation!” misses the point completely, akin to someone believing that golf is about hitting the ball as far as possible.

Ok, so I’ve used my 500 words to explain why many of us significantly over-estimate our negotiation skills. But why is that an obstacle to becoming a skilled negotiator?

Well, let’s compare an insecure negotiator and a very confident negotiator. The insecure person is likely to acknowledge that he (or she) needs improvement. He is thus likely to seek out opportunities to acquire more knowledge and to improve his skill.

A testament to this would be one of my participants from a year ago. He has made the journey from an insecure negotiator to one of the most skilled negotiators I know, because he simply won’t stop learning! He attends courses, he practices, he finds role models, he asks for feedback, and he keeps adjusting his approach for better results.

Let’s compare this with an overly confident negotiator. This negotiator won’t seek more learning opportunities – why would he, he already believes that he is a master! Therefore he will also ignore feedback from others. And if being a great negotiator is important to him, then he is likely to rationalise failures as not being caused by himself.

This negotiator has effectively closed all doors for continued learning. He will stagnate, he will keep doing what he has always done, and he will keep getting the same results he has always gotten.

A truly skilled negotiator is aware of just how complex the field of negotiation is, and the seemingly impossible task of mastering every single insight that can help influence human behaviour and outcomes. This is a humbling experience that is unlikely to lead to over-confidence.

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Filip Hron

Filip Hron is a negotiation consultant, lecturer and author. He has taught at a dozen universities, consulted on billion dollar negotiations, and trained senior executive leadership across business, NGOs, academia, government, judiciary, military and law-enforcement.