“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time,” F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “and still retain the ability to function.” But as evidenced by the writer’s own troubled life, balancing paradoxical principles can be difficult. How can you remain calm in negotiations while also being on the lookout for danger? Shake things up while waiting for the dust to settle? Or, for that matter, stay grounded while reaching for the stars?
Embracing paradox may sound like a fanciful New Age notion. But consider that poised negotiators have something in common with star athletes who stay fully absorbed in the present moment. You may catch yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next instead of listening intently to your counterpart, but you won’t get into that zone by scolding yourself (see also Negotiation Techniques from International Diplomacy: Lessons for Business Negotiators).
As Timothy Gallwey observes in his classic book, The Inner Game of Tennis (Random House, 1997), telling yourself to “watch the ball” is implicit self-criticism.
Instead, he advises simply, “focus on the ball and hit” every time the ball meets the court and your racket. Do that, and concentration naturally follows (for more information on self-fulfilling prophecies in negotiation, see also: Beware Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Negotiation and also Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Negotiation), in which the predictive power of expectations is discussed in detail).
The equivalent in negotiation is to attend closely to the pace and spin of what is being said. Suppose that a salesperson calls with detailed information about technical equipment that you may want to lease. You might be tempted to dive into the conversation even if you’ve been working on another project. But taking five minutes to clear your desk – and your mind – could help you reap big dividends in negotiation. Tell the salesperson you’ll call her back. Take a few deep breaths, think about your priorities, and you’ll be ready to perform at your best (for more information on strategies to help you arrive at your objectives in a negotiation, see also Managing Difficult Conversations: Achieving Objectives with Backmapping Strategies).
Achieving the right balance of engagement and detachment has a paradoxical effect. The less you make negotiation a test of your skill and status, the more likely you’ll be to reach a good agreement.
How do you remain detached, yet fully engaged at the bargaining table?