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Negotiation setbacks, disappointments and surprises

“Mr Sam, I think you are very boring!” - “Whaaaat?!”

This was my Korean agent’s comment to me and my subsequent reaction after I spent an hour trying to look interested whilst he spent this time speaking exclusively in Korean to a potential client – unfortunately I didn’t, and still don’t, speak the language.

Of course, what he meant to say was “Mr. Sam, I think you are very bored’. Now whilst it is very interesting how a slight change in one word can change the entire comprehension of a sentence, it’s my reaction that I want to focus on.

I was very focused on trying to be as engaged as possible, and when the unexpected comment was made, I just lost it. Now this can be referred to as the Amygdala Hijack – our knee-jerk six-second reaction to external stimuli, it’s also referred to as the ‘chimp’ response by Dr Steve Peters - our inner animalistic response in his book ‘The Chimp Paradox’.

Now this kind of response can be triggered by perceived threats or disappointments – either as a new piece of information or as a mismatch between the differing expectations between two or more parties. These pitfalls are open to all of us, regardless of our experience in dealing with conflict – be it personal or commercial.

For a current real-world example of the latter, take the events at the NATO summit at Vilnius this week. The initial reaction from President Zelensky (to the NATO statement) that there was no definitive timeline for Ukrainian NATO membership, was originally greeted with a strong reaction, “Absurd” was one word that he used in response. However, 48 hours, several high level one to one meetings and a series of assurances later, the response had changed to this is “a significant security victory”.

Probably very wise, given the later grumbles that some in NATO made about the fact they were starting to feel like a branch of Amazon, for which armaments could be ordered as a next day delivery service.

The reality is that we can’t scenario plan for every possible objection, issue or piece of bad news that comes our way in commercial conflicts. What we can do however, is change the way that we respond to them.

  • Dispassionately summarising and clarifying a new piece of information or contentious position, without bias, can help to smooth over those first difficult six seconds. It also shows the other side that you are listening and engaged.

  • We can also have a series of go to questions, which can help us to draw the sting and not make assumptions based on our own pre-conceived ideas, – ‘Tell me more...’, ‘Can you explain the basis of this?’, ‘What outcome do you want to achieve from this?’

  • If we’re on our own, we might ask the other side to repeat their position so that we have absolute clarity. Even if we already have that clarity, the repetition can also give us time to figure out what to do next. If you are in any doubt, asking yourself the following three questions can be helpful as to what you say next:

Should this be said?

Should this be said by me?

Should this be said by me, now?

Failure to take a measured approach might suggest to the other side that your behaviour is such that you’ve mistaken the present date for a Black Friday event instead!

Sam Macbeth, 13th July 2023

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