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Mind over matter: The characteristics of a great negotiator

31 March 2017 - By Paul Sills

Great negotiators are fearless – they never hesitate to engage with their opponents if their engagement may help advance matters. But what turns good into great? The characteristics of a great negotiator include the following:

  • Preparation and planning skills (as General Dwight Eisenhower said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”).
  • Subject matter knowledge;
  • Cool cognitive skills – the ability to think clearly under pressure when dealing with uncertainty;
  • Great communication skills – listening and talking;
  • Good judgment and the ability to be decisive in key moments;
  • Hard work, patience, persistence and stamina;
  • Integrity and the ability to build good relationships (building rapport);
  • The ability to tolerate disagreement and confrontation;
  • Working with ambiguity and paradox;
  • The ability to let situations evolve without the need to control them;
  • Mindfulness.

Of these characteristics, mindfulness is the most valuable to the negotiator and supports all the others. Mindfulness can be defined as:

“The practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”

There is a saying in the military: “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy.” The same is true of negotiation. As Professor Michael Wheeler states in his book The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World (Simon & Schuster, October 2013):

“Whoever sits across the table from you is likely to be as determined, as smart, and as unpredictable as you are. You can’t dictate their agendas, attitudes or actions any more than you would let them dictate yours.”

Great negotiators will improvise in much the same way as a great jazz musician.

A lot of negotiators are successful because they go into each new negotiation situation with a complete presence of mind. This allows them to respond to, and work with, whatever is presenting itself in the moment rather than trying to bend the situation in front of them to their own will or a predetermined outcome. As UN Negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi has stated:

“Keep an open mind and be ready to change and adapt to the situation. Don’t ask reality to conform to your blueprint, but transform your blueprint to adapt to reality.”

Being emotionally grounded is essential to negotiation success. To stay emotionally centred negotiators need to be able to sit comfortably with the paradox of seemingly contradictory feelings, for example, being simultaneously calm and alert. If you work in a state of mindfulness then you can approach negotiation as an ongoing process of discovery: not just about the situation and the other party but, ultimately, even yourself.

Professor Wheeler refers in his book to all negotiations being chaotic – they are fluid and not wholly predictable. Great negotiators understand and embrace this reality. This allows them to be agile, to sidestep problems and to seize opportunities when conditions change – as they frequently will. This may come more naturally to some people, but it is a skill that can be learned and honed with practise.

Paul Sills is an Auckland barrister specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is also an experienced mediator. paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz

Last updated on the 31st March 2017