A long time ago, when I was fairly new at law practice, I represented a plaintiff in a contentious sexual harassment case against a large company. After a series of pre-trial battles, the defendant's counsel opened the door to the possibility of settlement, throwing out an insultingly low-ball number. I wasn't sure how to respond.
At that point in my career, I thought I knew how to litigate, but nobody had ever taught me how to negotiate. I had never received any training in negotiation strategy in law school, and very little at my law firm. The subject simply wasn't taught at the time. So I honestly didn't know the best number to come back with in order to lead the process to a good result for my client. For some reason I confessed my weakness to the other side, saying something that indicated I wasn't sure what to do next. My adversary's response was to ask me whether there was anyone else at my firm who was more skilled at negotiation who could get back to him with a response to his offer.
Suddenly I understood two things. First, there was nobody else at my firm who could do this better than I could. This was my case, and I knew it better than anyone. Second, I realized from defense counsel's somewhat desperate request for somebody to negotiate with, that the other side was extremely anxious to make a deal. Their aggressive litigation strategy had failed to make us go away, and now they were looking at the high costs and high risks of proceeding to trial. I knew they would pay more than they were offering, even though I wasn't sure how much I could talk them up.
Once I figured out how to process what the other side was telling me, I had the confidence to handle the negotiations, And I was able to engage in the kind of give-and-take necessary to get the deal done. After that, I never again thought of myself as someone who didn't know how to negotiate.
This story came back to me as I was reading a book called The Art of Negotiation, by Michael Wheeler, a professor at Harvard Business School, who is also part of Harvard's well-known Program on Negotiation. I picked up the book after I had a chance to hear Wheeler talk at UCLA about his theories of negotiation. The book is filled with entertaining stories about buying houses and cars, and closing business deals. Wheeler teaches classes on negotiation, so he obviously believes students can learn about negotiation in a classroom. But he also understands that negotiation is more of an art than a science. His theme is about the importance of improvisation in negotiation: responding to the cues and information given by the other side It's about the attention, presence of mind, and creativity needed to succeed in negotiation.
In other words, the secrets of negotiation lie not so much in knowing how to parry and thrust against the other side's maneuvers to score the most points. In fact, Wheeler repeatedly emphasizes that pushing for the best possible deal is not necessarily to a negotiator's advantage. Sometimes an overly aggressive approach will cause the other side to walk away, and sometimes getting more than your fair share will end up costing you in the end.
Instead, being a good negotiator is more about being in tune with the needs and desires of the other side, the way that good jazz musicians or theatrical improvisers respond to what they hear from their counterparts. It's about having a plan and then throwing that plan out the window as soon as you encounter the unpredictable response of the other side. And it's about learning how to treat our adversary as a partner in a project that requires more collaboration than competition.