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What You'll Learn In Today's Episode

  • Danger and stress can distract you, so resist the urge to act fast. Instead, seek the big picture; get the lay of the land. You need discipline and deliberation, not natural inclinations.
  • Many negotiators rush into talks unprepared. On the other hand, a skilled negotiator recognizes their lack of information. Solicit your counterpart’s point of view rather than rely on (often mistaken) assumptions.
  • Some negotiators mistakenly project maximum confidence. This, too, is a mistake. Humility doesn’t make you a doormat. It builds bridges where aggression is offputting. Additionally, it can prevent you from rushing to (needlessly) bad conclusions.
  • Get everyone calmer by responding calmly. Politely seek out everyone’s motivations and concerns. Good negotiators ask good questions.

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Executive Summary:

How do you handle worst-case negotiating scenarios? What do you do when even the meeting place is dangerous?

Many negotiators operate from comfortable chairs at calm tables. However, you won’t elevate your influence by focusing on the easy times, alone: Are you prepared to handle unfriendly situations?

Nolan and Aram recount their experience on and off the battlefield in this edition of the NEGOTIATEx podcast.

Succeed Despite High Stress

It’s nice to deliver value on good days. It’s another to win consistently under extreme pressure.

Your hosts know what that’s like. Aram’s have been published in Harvard Business Review: In “Extreme Negotiations” (November 2010), he and his coauthors sought lessons Army leaders have learned. As a result, those lessons were compiled for business use.

There’s more in common between corporate and military leadership than you might think: Complex, high-stakes negotiations are challenging, in or outside of a uniform.

Granted, though: Military negotiators sometimes have it toughest.

Demand or De-escalate?

It was 2010, during Aram’s 2nd deployment to Afghanistan: A forward base had been attacked recently by the Taliban. During his assignment, they attacked and burned a supply vehicle, too.

Tensions were high. The base commander wanted the local Afghani police chief to manage the situation. Before long, their conversation deteriorated into angry finger-pointing.

Nolan’s been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Aram, he can attest that every negotiator feels severely challenged sometimes. However, moments like these require keeping systematic and deliberate.

Reverting to natural inclinations brings disaster.

Take a Step Back

Danger and stress can distract you. Nevertheless, resist that act-fast urge. Your first goal is getting the big picture.

Rookie negotiators may rush into negotiations unprepared. Many also project maximum confidence, operating on their perceptions—rather than the facts.

Both of these are huge mistakes.

On the other hand, a skilled negotiator recognizes their lack of information. You can’t keep humble starting from presumptions about the other side. Instead, solicit your counterpart’s point of view.

Uncover and Collaborate

No one wants to look weak. Nevertheless, avoid inflexible posturing, as well. Aggressive demands won’t help.

To get everyone calmer, respond calmly. Seek out everyone’s motivations and concerns.

Don’t ask, “What do you want?” Instead, sincerely try “Why is that important to you?” and “How does that help you accomplish what you need?”

Good negotiators ask good questions. Some people will immediately respond constructively.

At the same time, others will be cagier. You might have to do some testing. For example, ask, “This is what I think you’re concerned about… What am I missing?”

Frame the Conversation around Interests

Additionally, try sharing your own interests. There’s real power in reciprocity within negotiations. By relating your concerns, you increase the possibility of learning theirs.

From there, consider listing possibilities and asking the other party to rank them: Among options you could pursue together, which appeal the most?

Next, try throwing out a crazy idea. In a noncommittal way, suggest something—and listen carefully to the response.

You want to encourage what Aram calls “Genuine Buy-in:” Force or threats will only close doors (and possibly induce greater conflict).

By the same token, using objective criteria and principles of fairness will usually open them. Consistent fairness always gets you further than hostility.

Likewise, keep it real: Don’t ask for something that you honestly couldn’t provide on your end. You want real relationships. They are worth earning.

Under pressure, some negotiators may try bribing the other side with concessions. Avoid this, too. Consistent integrity speaks volumes more than shallow gestures.

In other words, focus on building trust, respect, and rapport.

Last but not least, focus on your process. Don’t give in on critical issues for short-term gain. Immediate safety, gained at the cost of greater future risk, is a net loss.

You’re better off taking steps to intentionally shape the process—and the outcome. Therefore, commit to it early. Success is likeliest when you put group dynamics ahead of a deal’s substance.

Nolan and Aram have more on high-stakes negotiations in this edition of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Please subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen from. Questions to team@negotiatex.com are always welcome. Don’t forget to drop by negotiatex.com and leave feedback. There’s a downloadable prep tool there for you, too.

Your time’s important to us. Thanks for listening!


Nolan Martin : Welcome to another episode of the NegotiateX Podcast, I am your co host and co founder Nolan Martin, and with me today is my co host and co founder Aram Donigian, Aram, how are you doing today, my friend?

Aram Donigian : I'm great. How are things in your world, Nolan?

NM : They are good. You know, it's starting to warm up just slightly, but we still have some just like remnants of snow on the ground. But I believe you said that you're getting ready to get eight inches of snow.

AD : So yeah, it’s snowing here in New Hampshire. We love it.

NM : Good for y'all. Because oh, that just sounds gross, but my family lives in Texas, and they just got hit with five inches.

AD : That shuts down Texas. Oh, yeah. That's about the only thing in the world that can shut down Texas.

NM : Yeah, yeah [laughs]. Alright. So, you know, I'm excited for today's episode. I know I say that all the time. But I really am excited for today's episode because I think it's a pretty big accomplishment that you've had in your academic career and that's to be published on the Harvard Business Review, right? Harvard Business Review?

AD : Yeah, that's correct. Yep.

NM : So I noticed this is an article that Jeff Weiss wrote, and then Jonathan Hughes and yourself, called Extreme Negotiations in November of 2010. So first I want to say congratulations, I know that's a really big deal. But really, I'm excited to dig into this today. So what was the premise for this article?

AD : Well, yeah, thanks, Nolan. It's a -- it was an honor to kind of get to write it with both those gentlemen. So I was deployed to Afghanistan, it was my second trip to Afghanistan in 2010 and one thing we were wanting to do is capture lessons learned from different army leaders at different levels, and extrapolate those lessons into advice for business leaders who were engaged in complex high stakes, cross functional negotiations.

NM : Did you feel that that was an easy gap to be able to bridge between military lessons in the corporate world?

AD : Well, you know, I get asked a lot about the context differences between the military and business and one thing I tell folks is that while the context is different with say, you know, the Navy SEALs or special forces folks that we work with, versus a startup business tech firm, big energy company, you know, the context is obviously different; the nature of the challenges are really the same, you know, it's people problems, it's resource problems, it's constrained timelines, it's, you know, high cost of when, you know, getting the negotiation wrong or challenges with implementation. It's the, you know, the tension between how do I manage a really important long term relationship and get something substantively good for myself or for a company? So I find that the lessons and the advice that we developed, actually crossover very well.

NM : Yeah, I think a question that I always get all the time is, do military officers even need to negotiate? Don't they hold all the power?

AD : Yeah. So I'm curious, how do you answer that?

NM : No, we don't! There's so many people on the battlefield just, okay, so if we talk about, you know, I've been deployed to both Afghanistan, Iraq and in both of those deployments, i've ran into the local populace, then you have the local government, then you have the local army, the local police, the local Border Patrol, then, on the coalition side, you have the NATO; of NATO, you probably have six or seven different countries and their armies, then you have the United States, in the United States, you have Department of State, inside, also the United States, you have all of the three letter agencies that are involved, then you have the military, inside the military, you have the Army, Air Force and Navy, inside of us, you have military officers, specifically West Point grads, and maybe United States Naval Academy grads and if we're in a negotiation, you really got to dumb it down, because we know the kind of quality education that our Naval Academy graduates get. But I digress. So there's a ton of people and a ton of different players that are definitely in a negotiation, so I basically say all that to say, military officers do need to negotiate even in a deployed environment.

AD : Yeah, I think that's a great answer. And those dynamics are ones that I'm not sure everyone understands we face and yet they are very similar to the dynamics that I know senior corporate leaders encounter all the time as they try to build alignment, build a path forward, and they're trying to manage both internal and external stakeholders.

NM : Right, so but kind of back to your HBR article, in those extreme negotiation contexts, what is the essence of your advice?

AD : Yeah, it's, it's this: when we are in those worst, most difficult, most challenging, toughest situation -- in those times, that's when the stakes was the highest, okay? Or we feel that our negotiation power or leverage is the lowest it's in those moments, when we have to be at our absolute negotiation best, we must be systematic, and deliberate, to be effective and we can't revert to how we first learned to negotiate, to some natural inclination of negotiation. Instead, we need to be able to take a step back, consider our choices, shape the process, and act purposively.

NM : Yeah, but before I forget, if anybody's interested in this article, we're going to leave a link to it in the show notes, so this is episode 6, so if you go to negotiate.com/ 6, you'll see a link to this article. If you don't read a lot of HBR articles, you can usually get to read two free each month. So if you click on the link, I should be able to read it, if you don't just wait to the end of the month, and you'll be able to read next month, or you can buy either or. But okay, so in your article, which is an incredible article, I love it because it breaks down kind of the good and the bad of each strategy I'm about to mention. So you identified five strategies that we'd like to call, you know, elevating your influence to purposeful negotiation, those strategies were, get the big picture, uncover and collaborate, elicit genuine buy-in, build trust first, and focus on process. Do you mind if we kind of walk through each one?

AD : Yeah, not at all. So that first strategy is getting the big picture and, and danger, high stress moments create this pressure to act fast and it often leads negotiators to begin negotiations with little preparation to project maximum confidence and thus negotiate based on their own perceptions rather than the facts and this often results in increased and unnecessary conflict, as well as maybe negotiating a solution that fails to solve the real problem. Now, in contrast with a skilled negotiator would do is recognize that they don't have all the information. And so they're going to solicit the point of view of their counterpart, and use that to understand and shape negotiation objectives and strategies. And so let me give you just a quick story. I was at Fort operating base in Afghanistan, providing some negotiation instruction and coaching to different units and this particular base had just days before been, uh, been attacked by the Taliban and while I was there, they had a supply vehicle on its way that was attacked and burned by the Taliban and the commander of the base wanted his counterpart police chief to go out and manage the situation, they've been working together for four months and because of the stress of the situation, the nature of that conversation, which I had the opportunity to witness became one of pointing fingers and saying, ‘this is your job, you need to do this’ -- to which the police chief pushed back and said ‘we're not prepared or equipped to do this’. And so the result was disorganization, both parties incredibly upset with each other. I went to advise my American counterpart first, who didn't really want to engage, and so I followed the police chief back and the police chief actually did go and send people out, but he did so without the coordination of his American partner. And so again, this tendency to act quickly without having all the information, without trying to manage the perceptions of our counterpart can lead to really poor results and outcomes.

NM : Unfortunately, I've kind of seen the same thing. It's like you always think that the other party is the nefarious one; that you have all the facts and that they are, you know, the one that is wrong, that that you are the one that is always right and I think it kind of shuts down the conversation from the beginning. It's hard to remain humble and open minded when you have these kind of judgments from the start.

AD : Yeah, that's really true. That's really true, Nolan. And the interesting thing to me is that it's exactly that posture of curiosity, wanting to know how they see it, to consider what I might be missing -- that is so critical when situations get tense.

NM : The second strategy that you discuss uncover and collaborate, seems to stem from how danger produces a perceived need to look strong, leading negotiators to take steak out strong positions, refuse to compromise, and forcefully demand concessions, increasing resistance from the other side, creating more contentious negotiations and risking no agreement, when one was possible. How do you advise against that?

AD : Yeah, so in this case, the skilled negotiator needs to uncover motivations and concerns. So rather than just asking, what do you want, they need to ask, why is that important to you, how does that help you accomplish, whatever it is you're trying to accomplish, then they can take responsibility for proposing multiple solutions, and then invite the other side to do the same -- try to improve upon those ideas. So quick story: working, same deployment working with a senior leader, a commander who had seen, who caught, they caught some local villagers, two men, employing IDs on the road, rather than just kind of arrest these men, they wanted to use this as an opportunity to engage the village leaders. And so they took the video evidence to the village leaders, and they asked for help. And the village leaders immediately demanded money to take care of the problem, as if this was some sort of trade off. And you can imagine the commander's tendency to do that to, you know, buy some cooperation, but he resists that and said, why, you know, and they said, well, we would need that money to find out who this was, it would allow us to build some prestige in the village, look at what we extracted from the Americans. And so by asking the why question, he realized, you know, the problem could be solved without money, the US was able to identify these two individuals, the elder, they can help the elder build prestige, by, you know, leading how it was handled. And the nice thing is it would set a really good precedent for future interactions. And so I think, you know, one of the things we notice about really effective negotiators is they ask really good questions and that power of asking those questions, is what allows them to resolve conflict, especially when it's in a high stress situation?

NM : It sounds like a lot of shifting the conversations from one of positions to one of interests. I know your clients often ask, how do you effectively frame a conversation around interest, how do you answer that?

AD : Well, there's five things I like to do. It's rare that you can just walk up to somebody and say, hey, tell me your interest. One move is to just ask and say, hey, can you tell me a little bit more about your concerns in the situation? So that's one way you can try to shift the conversation from one of demands and positions to one of interest -- ask what are their interests – what are their concerns? Second one is to test if in preparation, you thought a little bit about what the other party is concerned about. Well, you've got some tests. This is what I think you're concerned about, about what am I missing? A third is to share your own. There's a real power of reciprocity in this in negotiation. If I share with you what my concerns are greater chance, I'm going to get some of those back. Fourth, I would throw out some different possible things we might do together and ask you to rank them. Tell me which one you like better and why that's going to reveal to me something about your interests and concerns. And finally, fifth, I might throw out a crazy idea, not asking for a commitment for this but you know, let me just throw out a crazy idea they do the whole they have supply it for free, what would be wrong with that, then listen real carefully to what you get back.

NM : All right, let's move on to strategy number three.

AD : That would be to elicit genuine buy-in.

NM : Okay, so, the idea here is that the danger produces a temptation to use force or threats, creating resentment that sows the seeds for future conflict. Your advice is to use objective criteria and principles of fairness to persuade the other side, arming them with justifications to defend the outcome to their constituents and creating useful precedents for future negotiations. Why is that?

AD : You know, I've seen way too many, far too many negotiations, whether it's in Afghanistan or elsewhere, break down, simply because we don't understand that it is in our interest and is our concern, it is our responsibility to help the other party defend any possible outcome to their toughest critic, constituent colleague or commander, which we have to, people we have to answer to. And so some of the one of the reasons, we often saw some success and some of the counter corruption work I was doing in my third deployment was because we created joint working groups with our Afghan counterparts and we tried to create both a fair process as well as good precedent. Good, fair solutions. So one quick story in 2012, I had the opportunity to advise American general who was working on base security issues with Afghan counterparts. And one of the things that we really focused on in our preparation was realizing that both us, and our Afghan counterpart had a number of internal stakeholders that we would have to defend us to. And so we had to really frame the conversation around what are the standards, what's the precedent, whether it was around pay, whether it was around uniform, whether it was around shifts, how are we going to ensure security to these bases and come up with a solution that both parties could defend? We asked ourselves questions such as what might they need to be able to defend a solution, what don't we know that might derail any potential agreement? Can we plan for that through this use of fairness? So that was really important, we were able to avoid any use of threats or arbitrary commitments through that. And I think it's one of the reasons that we actually got to a tentative agreement in our very first meeting with our Afghan counterpart, which, you know, aside from, you know, drinking tea, and getting to know him for the first time, was pretty amazing that we got that far.

NM : Yeah. So I think that's extremely powerful that you're able to basically collaborate in a joint environment. I remember in the past, you were saying you can wield legitimacy as either a sword or a shield. And you said that, a shield by asking your counterpart, why that number, how would I defend that to my boss? And you said, a sword, by proposing the standard, I think the solution makes sense, given this cosmos model, this industry standard, or this precedent?

AD : Yeah, that's correct. There's this idea, the test of reciprocity, I shouldn't ask someone to do something that I myself would be unwilling or unable to do and defend and so that's this idea of being reasonable.

NM : Moving on to strategy number four, which I think was build trust first.

AD : Yeah. So what we see is that danger creates a desire to defuse tension, which will lead negotiators to make concessions, and an attempt to build the relationship and that often results in missed opportunities to develop real relationships, which would be based on mutual understanding, trust, respect, and rapport. The difference here is the skilled negotiator rather than trying to buy the relationship through some substantive concession is going to deal with relationship issues head on, they're going to address them on their own merits, how I treat you how I speak to you, how we engage with one another, the process we follow through on commitments, all those sorts of things, and then make commitments that will systematically and incrementally build trust and encourage future cooperation.

NM : So then what's an example of building trust first?

AD : Yeah, so one key issue that we were faced with was trying to partner with a specific provincial governor, to take increased action on security issues at border checkpoints, and airports and everyone I spoke to said, oh, it's impossible to negotiate with this person, we have no way to kind of buy his partnership, he has everything he wants, in terms of money and army and so forth, he was notorious for canceling meetings with our leaders at the last minute, he wouldn't keep them. And so I really chose to challenge the perspective that I was hearing from others, and ask, you know, what can I do to establish a working relationship with this person, with this key leader? And so I took some time to think about what his concerns were both current and future concerns, what his alternatives might be to working with us, I find it valuable to put myself in someone else's shoes and think about how they see their choice, their perspective and their alternatives. And so I came up with a different set of assumptions about how he saw himself, his role, his future in Afghanistan, maybe some needs around informing people of the work he was doing and his need to do be able to frame any cooperation with us. So I reached out to a staff with a proposal to bring a media team up, cover some of the good stuff that he was doing, I got a response within 24 hours, I lead a team north and I got to meet with him, and during the meeting, this was a relationship move I shared with him how I had been thinking about his problem, why I understood why he might be resistant to work with us, and my genuine hope that there was a potential partnership to be forged. And the amazing thing was that from then on, and I think that just the courtesy of knowing that someone thought about his choice for once, we had this complete open door, even went out of his way, one time when one of my leaders was supposed to meet with him, couldn't meet with him because of a sandstorm had a land somewhere else and he chose to go ahead and keep the meeting drove two hours way, two hours out of his way and so just this, this great new relationship that was fostered.

NM : Yeah, I think that's pretty powerful story there and one of the things that kind of stood out to me was the genuine relationship you built, like you genuinely wanted to cover it with me, you genuinely wanted to, to kind of showcase the good that he was doing and then, I mean, kind of in reciprocity, you hope that you built that relationship, but I think that you ultimately did want to showcase the good that he was doing. And it kind of sounds like it paid off. So you basically, although you weren't able to control him, you were able to establish build a foundation that you know, was based on trustworthiness, openness, respectfulness, and you being considerate. So –

AD : Yeah, Roger Fisher used to say, Nolan, he used to say – “be soft on the people and hard on the problem”, right, and that's kind of the general idea, there's been a breakdown of trust, you've got to deal with trust issues head on, you got to discuss them, you got to uncover them, you got to address the rest of the, you know, root causes of those problems. And then, and then you got to work to understand perceptions, people are entitled to have their own perspective of things and so rather than forcing somebody to see it your way, work to understand how they see it and as you do that, seek to understand what their intent, your intent might be around a situation and separate that from the potential negative impact. I find that intentions are usually either neutral or good, the impact can often be negative and so we got to be able to separate those things, talk about them, and build the relationship by doing so.

NM : Yeah, I think that's kind of a weakness, I definitely need to work on as far as elevating my influence through purposeful negotiation.

AD : So that's true for all of us, for all of us.

NM : Alright, so moving on to strategy number five, focus on process.

AD : Yeah, this is my big one, if you can ask any of my students, I'm a big believer in process, especially for someone who's trying to get incrementally better within negotiations, focusing on process can be so important. So danger, high stakes situations create this or produce this desire to avoid harm to oneself, to one's organization to one’s constituents or subordinates, which will often lead us to give in on critical issues, to avoid or minimize threats, resulting in agreements that create enormous future risk exposure and this is often a breakdown then in the process of negotiation. So the skilled negotiator here is going to anchor themselves in a real solid process, not react to the other side, but actually take steps to shape the negotiation process intentionally, as well as the outcome. And one of our stories here was one of again, stories I've heard some other about our past cadets that took courses from us. And so this was Lieutenant Gardner, he was nervous, he was on his first patrol in Afghanistan, he was a graduate of our course and so he, he was on patrol and all of a sudden, as they're on patrol there, a crowd starts to gather, a number of angry elders, and they're making some demands, are clearly trying to talk to him and shout at him and he could have -- he had several choices, right, you got to walk away, he could have just said, let me give you something, not addressed the issue, just tried to appease you in some way, he could have gotten them confrontational, but he didn't do any of those things, right, he paused, he actually took off his sunglasses so they can see his eyes and he listened. And so he created the environment, good security, obviously, which would be important but he said he took the time to sit down with these leaders, in a very unexpected situation, see the opportunity to get to kind of build some awareness and he gained some understanding what their concerns were, this emotional frustration they had, there had actually been a bad contract, this happened unfortunately, time and time again in Afghanistan. Somebody had supposedly sold land and paid for land by the US. It wasn't theirs to sell. Whoever had handled it hadn't done their due diligence. These folks were upset about that. And so he took the time to understand, he came up, brainstormed some ideas with them, didn’t commit to anything, managed the process incredibly well and then he was able to go back and they did reach some -- to go back to his command and was able to eventually reach some sort of resolution. But it was because of his patience, his ability to manage that process. And that really set the foundation for his entire deployment. I mean, he like gained allies first time out and was such a powerful way to approach a high stakes situation,

NM : When I read that a few things that stood out to me is, one, obviously it’s pretty impressive that it was his first patrol on his first deployment, kudos for that kid, but two, how he handled it was pretty impressive in there, he specifically said that the mob was trying to basically engage all of the soldiers at once engaged, being like trying to talk to them and trying to get answers all at once but he said that, hey, you know, he's specific, like intentionally talked quiet, to basically control the pace of the, the conversation and to slow things down so that they had to kind of strain to hear what he was saying and almost immediately, can basically everyone calm down as he, shifted the, you know, the environment, the negotiation environment to being cool, calm and collected. It's pretty, pretty powerful. It sounds easy for us to talk about it. But it's got to be pretty difficult, right?

AD : Yeah, it is, right. And I think it's a skill there to learn, not just how we talk about issues, but actually about the process, those things that you were just mentioning, right? Being able to manage volume and tone, set an agenda, have questions, make sure that we commit to the process early, that's really important. We'll commit to the substance later but we need to be able to be really comfortable with managing this group dynamic.

NM : Thanks, Aram, I hope our listeners have found this conversation helpful today, especially since it's going to help them elevate their influence through purposeful negotiation. Again, if you head to the website, if you go to negotiatex.com/6, you'll find the link to the Harvard Business Review article that Aram, Jonathan and Jeff wrote about extreme negotiations. Again, you get two free articles, it's not free, wait till next month, and you'll be able to get it for free. So this is a podcast about taking action, but most importantly about delivering value to your organization, business and life. What are some key takeaways our listeners can work on to become better negotiators? Well, if you want to become a more effective negotiator, whether the stakes are high, or it's just commonplace, I would encourage you to consider making some shifts and how you negotiate. Shift from asking ‘what do you want or what do you want to give up’ to ‘why do you want it’; from, you know, ‘what will you accept’ to ‘what are some different possible ways for us to resolve this problem’; from asking the question of ‘why don't we just split it’ to be able to say, you know, ‘by what criteria or fair, legitimate process, can we evaluate and defend the best agreement’; shift from saying ‘I understand’ to actually being able to show understanding, empathy, concern. And finally, the shift from thinking that your strength comes from knowing your right, anchoring well, and effectively using threats to a mindset where strength comes from being open to learning and persuasion, being skilled at figuring out the other party's concerns and motivations and you becoming very, very creative.So thanks, Aram. I appreciate it. To our listeners, head on over to Apple iTunes or sorry, Apple Podcasts, excuse me, or wherever you listen to this podcast. Do us a favor, give us a five star rating and leave us a review. That does us a lot of good to help get this podcast in front of all of the negotiators that are trying to elevate their game. Another great thing to do is to check out the preparation tool. Again, this is going to help you for future negotiations -- helps you organize all your thoughts and essentially help you navigate the negotiation, you can find that on negotiatex.com/prep. That is it for us on today's podcast. We hope you enjoyed it. If you have any questions you want us to cover anything like this or something else in future episodes, shoot us an email at team@negotiatex.com. We'll be glad to cover it in future episodes. And until then, we will see you in the next episode.

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