The Art of Negotiation

So much ink has been spilled over the years in discussing negotiating that I was somewhat reluctant to add my thoughts to an already overcrowded marketplace of ideas.  But in the end my recklessness got the better of me.  And I thought I might commit some thoughts to paper in the hope that others may find them useful.  My own experience has not necessarily caused me to reject what other writers on the subject have said;  it is more that I think their thick books could be compressed into a few pages.  At best.

I’ve always been irritated by pedantic types who love to make things more complicated than they need to be.  We could easily dispense with these “experts” and their ponderous flow charts, Venn diagrams, CDs, glossy photos, and expensive seminars.  Fundamentally stated, negotiation is two parties of opposing viewpoints, with each one trying to advance his or her own interest.  Two wills in opposition, each seeking to maximize reward and minimize cost.  My fundamental negotiation principles are not complicated, not convoluted, and not abstract.  But they are based on my own years of experience in work and life.  So here they are:

 Armistice negotiations at the end of the Korean War, 1953.
1.  Know What the Hell You Want.

Common sense, right?  Wrong.  When I’ve asked people this question (“What is your goal?”)  in negotiation settings, you would be surprised at how many of them cannot produce a meaningful answer.  You can’t just go in and “take a wait-and-see approach” when you are negotiating.  You can’t wing it.  Unfortunately, we have become a society of people addicted to the sound of their own voices, a society hard-wired for instant problem resolution.  A society of people who would rather babble on about bullshit for its own sake, than dig deep and solve real problems.  So, ask yourself:  do you want to solve problems, or would you rather fuck around?  If the answer is that you’d rather fuck around, then do yourself a favor and go home.

2.  Know What the Hell You’re Talking About.

This cannot be stressed enough.  Another way of stating this is that you need to be technically and tactically proficient in the subject under discussion.  And I mean truly proficient.  Whatever subject you are sitting down to negotiate, you’d better be supremely competent in your goddamn field.  It is a weary platitude, but it is absolutely true that knowledge is power.  There is no substitute for meticulous preparation.  And you either have done the work, or you have not.  You either have the knowledge, or you do not.  And power, Stalin once told his ruthless Cheka director Felix Dzerzhinsky, “is the one part of the human condition that you can’t fake.”

Thorough, systematic preparation is the cornerstone of good success.  It will breed confidence in you, and the ease of familiarity you have with the material will become evident to others.  People can spot a fake or a bullshitter a mile away.  Now you may think this is basic common sense…but it is not.  Inevitably, people get sloppy and think they can bullshit their way through a subject.

3.  Know Who the Hell You’re Talking To. 

You need to find out as much as you can about the person you’re negotiating with.   You need to divine their motivations, and what makes them tick.  I know, I know, you say, “it’s all common sense.”  Except it isn’t.  Because you’re lazy, and you won’t do the work.  You will not.  You’ll sit there and say yeah, yeah, yeah, and then move onto some other subject, with the usual attention span of a ferret on a double espresso.

Know what the hell you want. And escalate.

4.  Negotiate From A Position Of Strength.

In other words, you need to be holding some goddamn cards.  If you go into a dialogue with nothing but your dick in your hand, the other side will sense it.  Power and confidence radiate, and it comes from knowing that you have something to bludgeon the other side with.  As a random example, if you are an attorney trying to settle a debt with a creditor, you’re going to get a better result with a cash reserve to make a reduced lump sum offer with, rather than propose an extended payment plan.  Money talks.  In military scenarios, to give another example, the best negotiation results are attained when battlefield victories have been recently attained.  Power creates its own momentum, and inscribes its own logic.  The list of illustrative examples goes on and on.

5.  Have Something In Reserve. 

Never play all your cards unless absolutely necessary.  You need to have some resource that you can pull out when all else fails.

6.  Don’t Be An Asshole.

Negotiation is usually not war.  (Well, sometimes!)  The media perpetuates a certain stereotype that being a big-mouthed prick somehow equals strength and competence.  American culture promotes this idea of the whip-cracking asshole who can get things done.  In real life, it doesn’t work this way.  Douchebags are quickly sniffed out and generally are not successful in getting what they want.  If you want to be successful in your negotiation, be courteous and respectful to the other side.  Bottle the acid.  Keep your feelings under control.  Try to see things from their perspective.  The sword should be brought out only when absolutely necessary, after other, gentler methods of persuasion have failed.  Goodwill is a form of inclusion, in that you are opening yourself up to the world to allow it to experience your inner radiance.  The gracious man gets stronger by implication.

When dealing with difficult people, do not get in the mosh pit and flail around with them.  “When you wrestle with a pig”, someone told me long ago, “all you get is dirty, and the pig don’t learn shit”.  Always take the high road.  Easier said than done, to be sure.  But nevertheless true.  You’ll thank yourself for it later.

I’ll end this post with a book recommendation.  The best book I ever read about the art of negotiation is a long forgotten volume called How Communists Negotiate, written by Admiral C. Turner Joy.   I have no idea why this book has been utterly forgotten.  I first heard about the book when reading up on the Korean War, a conflict that I find fascinating.   And don’t be put off by the stodgy Cold War-sounding title.  This is a truly entertaining, wonderfully instructive account of Joy’s experiences as the leader of the UN armistice negotiating team at Kaesong and Panmunjom at the end of the war in 1953.  It’s available for free on  The book recounts in detail the progress of the bitterly hostile negotiating experiences of the UN forces with China and North Korea.  Among the many instructive anecdotes:

  • How the enemy surrounded and threatened the UN team with weapons
  • The endless one-upsmanship games played by both sides
  • How the enemy tried to stack the agenda
  • The various ways to stonewall an adversary
  • How to wear down an adversary with invective and lies
  • How at one point both sides simply glared at each other in hatred for hours
  • How the armistice and battle lines were set, after endless deception and double-talk
 Admiral C. Turner Joy (left) and his negotiating team at Kaesong

Students of the art of negotiation (and history) will appreciate C. Turner Joy’s book for its rare first-hand account of one of the most arduous negotiating experiences in the past century.  And there is no better teacher than the crucible of history.  I have  visited Panmunjom, and believe me when I say it makes an impression.  If you ever find yourself in Seoul (and I hope you do not), try to arrange a daytrip tour to the DMZ.  It’s the most sobering guided tour you’ll ever make.

Read More:  The Humiliation Of A Great Empire

22 thoughts on “The Art of Negotiation”

  1. Best book on negotiation is “Power Negotiating” by Roger Dawson. Dawson is a businessman, not some know-nothing professor. He breaks everything down simply and clearly, illustrating with real examples from his own experience. Outstanding read.
    (Btw a good rule of thumb is NEVER read books written by professors or consultants. Only read books written by ppl who actually did what they write about.)

    1. This isn’t always true. Professors from academia work in a separate world, where new hypotheses and ideas are explored in a fixed (sometimes utopian) frame, where unknowns are approximated or known. Something the real world isn’t. Thus one can take the stance of academic papers to be only “dreams” that is a waste of time.
      However I’ve personally come to view them in another light. It’s often these papers/books that bring new theories and ideas that result in a slight improvement on the day to day operations. I have a habit of reading papers, some you can disqualify directly as it’s obvious they won’t aid you. Others are interesting. You read them, analyze them and try to figure out how you can use the concept in the real harsh world. Sometimes I dissect the concepts, like an outfit, only taking away what I liked or found interesting. That I can see working with what I’m rolling with already.
      Then of course you evaluate it, see if it really works in the frame of your already established operations. If it works and things improve, great, now we are doing stuff slightly different from the competition for a while before they catch up. If not, throw away.
      But I agree, foundation should be built on stuff that works. Learn from the successful guys in the industry. Once you got that mastered, start tweaking and adding to further improve. One of those sources is academic papers, ruling that out could potentially cost you time. That is you will not be among the first to learn and adopt something.
      And lastly, don’t adopt anything you read as truth. You need to screen it to your current situation and what you need to accomplish. Only after you’ve tested that it works, should you conclude it was a good move.

      1. The best is often a mixture of both: professors that practice what they teach/research constantly on big stages. Probably the best two courses I’ve ever taken were negotiation workshops taught by ESSEC’s Aurélien Colson. This guy has participated in, advised, and moderated many substantial negotiations between two and more parties on a global scale, and knows what the hell he’s talking about.

  2. Being married to a man from a bargaining culture has certainly opened my eyes to the art of negotiation.
    Some tactical points for success –
    Not everyone will negotiate. Be it an employer, a hotel with unbooked rooms, a jewelry store, a car dealership, a judge, some people just won’t deal. It’s not in their temperament. Accept it, and keep moving until you find someone who will.
    Walk Away. Some of our best deals have been made in the parking lot.
    3.  Use the ‘Power of Silence’ – or have it used against you. There will come a moment in a negotiation when you will be tempted to fill a silence with a better offer. Don’t. Don’t bet against yourself. No matter how uncomfortable, just sit there with a bland pleasant smile on your face until the other party says something.
    4.   Be Male – i hate to say it but in spite of careful study and imitation I have never been able to match my husband’s results.  Maybe its because no one wants to ‘lose’ to a giirrrllll. So as wingwoman my only job is to look pretty up until the very last minute.Then I pout and come up with some bs reason not to be happy. Instant concessions.

    1. Yeah, the hotel thing always pissed me off. “Negotiate for a discount – the hotel doesn’t want empty rooms!” Bullshit. One day at 7am I went to probably ten hotels looking for a discount – checkout at noon. Not a single one would budge an inch. Pre-internet booking days, too.

  3. Another essential: Care — but not too much! If your give-a-shit level is too high as regards the outcome of the negotiation, you will not do well. Don’t be too invested to walk away.

    1. Absolutely. I almost made this another principle, but the limitations of space in the article weighed against it. There is great power in knowing when to just walk away. The ability to get up an leave the table can make an indelible impression. Admiral Joy used this principle many times during the protracted negotiations at Kaesong and Panmunjom. When ever the Chinese/Korean side became unreasonable or intractable, he would simply pack up his papers and leave.

  4. “There is no substitute for meticulous preparation.”
    This is why I’ve always had trouble with the PUA/cold approach concept. It seems to leave too much to chance. If there were a way to do some background research on your target, you should have a much better success rate.
    This is where better social cooperation among guys would go a long way.

    1. I agree. On the other hand, distilled wisdom does have its merits. Example: a girl by herself is more approachable than a girl with two or more other girls. The girl by herself is less able to be influenced by the girls with her, and won’t fall back into “safety in numbers.”

    2. The research of PUA/cold approach is:
      1) memorizing materials that will give you a fighting chance and offer you hours of scripted materials that you can pick and choose from at-will, with any given girl (mixed with your own personality/stories/vibe)
      2) experience in having approached many other women and having a good feel for what sort of material this girl will respond to, based on initial observations and how she reacts to your opening routines

  5. Acho que seu artigo sobre a negociacao esta bastante focado na cultura americana, o que eh justificavel. Por exemplo, o ponto 1, certamente chineses e mesmos nossos primos arabes ou tem vaga ideia do que querem ou se sabem, nao respondem a pergunta “o que vc quer/deseja” da forma direta como o americano deseja…. simplesmente pq ao longo da negociacao, pode ser que uma nova alternativa seja encontrada, novas possibilidades surjam, ou mesmo que o interesse mude… Por exemplo, num curriculo (resume), que eh o comeco de uma negociacao de emprego, se vc colocar uma seccao como “objetivos”, vc responde de antemao a pergunta “o que vc quer”, entretanto, vc fecha o leque de opcoes..tanto pra vc, qnto pro empregador, que poderia ver seu resume de uma forma, pra uma outra area que nao o seu objetivo inicial….Por isso, mesmo “experts” de recursos humanos americanos estao aconselhando a nao responder o que vc quer (seccao objetivos) numa negociacao por emprego…deixe a coisa fluir e nao limite suas opcoes…

  6. any article on negotiation that doesnt mention ‘next best alternative’ is a friggin joke.

    1. Thank you. I’ve always used the acronym BATNA – Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. If you’ve got no good alternatives you’re behind the eight ball.

  7. Good stuff! This is what I get on this site for, this is the kind of stuff I can use today.

    1. The principles are simple, KD, but tried and true. I really believe that this stuff is not as hard as everyone makes it out to be.
      I really hope you check out the book I recommended. It is an easy but compelling read. I can guarantee you will be impressed with what went on during those negotiations.

  8. Great article, as usual. One of the best concepts I’ve learned is that sometimes clear communication between the two parties about what exactly they want can lead to great outcomes. Maybe A and B are fighting over a piece of land that contains water and oil. A might only want the water, and B might only want the oil. Once they know this, the negotiation takes on a completely new light.

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