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A word to the wise?

David Bannister
Negotiation Word To The Wise

I am a regular reader of a magazine called “The Week”. Published in the UK every Friday it summarises news and events published in media from around the world during the previous week. It has business and arts pages, too. One of its regular features is a column featuring quotations called “Wit and Wisdom”. I always read the column, sometimes the quotations don’t register with me and sometimes one or more cause me to think or, perhaps, chuckle. This week, I noted three:

“An idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan” Investor Warren Buffet.

“Curiosity is stronger than fear” Volcanologist Katia Krafft.

“There are no solutions there are only trade-offs” Politician Kemi Badenoch who, in turn, was quoting author, Thomas Sowell.

I noticed these three, which occurred together by coincidence, because they all relate to data we have on the behaviour of people who negotiate. For some years we have been collecting data from people and organisations who are coming onto our training programmes to improve their negotiating skills. They give their responses to 50 negotiating issues and we map their responses and produce a report. Our database now has about 15000 respondents and is, we think, one of the most substantial pieces of information anywhere in the world about negotiating behaviour. The people who respond have not experienced a Scotwork training programme when they complete our survey – our interest is in how they negotiate before we have the opportunity to influence them. The quotes in the magazine resonated with me – let me explain.


“An idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan”

You would be amazed that a significant number of people will enter a negotiation without a fully thought-through plan. A lack of clarity of objectives is not unusual. A cursory examination of those people who have studied and written about conflict strategy will show you that plans should take account of the fact that the unforeseen has a habit of happening and that just one plan on its own will not be likely to survive long. A willingness to review, restrategise and re-enter the fray with a revised plan are likely to be needed to succeed. Maybe that prepared and planful idiot can produce the outcome they want from a negotiation with a self-confident shoot-from-the-hip genius.


“Curiosity is stronger than fear”

One of the most significant things we notice about the less skilled negotiator in our survey is their attitude to questions. One thing you can guarantee at the start of a negotiation is that you don’t know everything about your counterparty that you would like to know, yet many negotiators fail to ask about what they don’t know (the known unknowns as they were once called) and plan questions. Hoping that what you don’t know, and might fear, will not become an issue in the negotiation, is not a tactic that usually succeeds – identify what you need to know and complete your knowledge by asking questions which fill the gaps.


“There are no solutions there are only trade-offs”

One of the significant findings from our research is that people will often consider that they have ‘the answer’ to the conflict if only the poor, deluded other side can be persuaded to acknowledge it and concede. The other side, of course doesn’t see it that way and will refuse to give in to whatever smooth oratory is aimed at them. People usually have to be given tangible reasons to change – they get something in return for altering their position. Trade-offs are at the heart of negotiation when arguing your position fails – as it almost always does.


I thought that I would share these quotes with you to give you pause for thought when you negotiate. To read the conclusions from our survey please follow the link.

David Bannister
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