Will Your Eagerness to Do a Deal Look Like Desperation?

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

Here are two diverging assessments of John Kerry’s performance as secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s second term, drawn from common portrayals of him in the media:
Kerry is an indefatigable leader who has taken a hands-on approach to solving the world’s problems. Miles apart from the scripted, cautious approach of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, Kerry has not been afraid to get his hands dirty by taking firm control of the Iran nuclear deal and other risky, high-profile negotiations in the Middle East and beyond. As a result of Kerry’s frequent-flier style of diplomacy, the Obama administration has achieved many of its goals on the international stage, including a promising breakthrough with Iran that forestalls the possibility of war.

As secretary of state, Kerry has literally and figuratively been all over the map, dashing from one hot spot to the next in a frenetic attempt to overcompensate for failing to make signature achievements as a senator or to be elected president. In the negotiations with Iran, his involvement, which included usurping the role of lead U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, betrayed a desperation to do a deal—any deal. In the process, he handed significant power and leverage to the Iranians, as reflected in a lopsided final agreement that abandoned key U.S. interests.
Depending on your politics and your view of the role of top leaders in negotiations, you might agree with one or the other of these characterizations. Or perhaps you think the truth lies somewhere in between: If Kerry has at times been an overzealous secretary of state, it is hard to fault him for trying.

In our negotiations, we all regularly cope with counterparts who try too hard—such as salespeople who pester us with phone calls or show up at our office or home unannounced. Their desperation to reach a deal comes through loud and clear, making them seem not only annoying but also potentially ripe for exploitation. At the same time, we must also deal with those who don’t try hard enough, such as negotiators who seem to drop out of sight for long periods of time or appear indifferent to the prospect of reaching agreement.
How can we ensure that we ourselves come across as enthusiastic but not desperate, rational but not aloof? To help you better manage others’ impressions in negotiation, we cover three essential steps, ranging from tactical to introspective.

1. Negotiate roles in advance

In pursuit of a historic nuclear deal with Iran, Kerry took heat for his willingness to meet his Iranian counterpart, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, virtually anywhere, including Geneva, Paris, Davos, Lausanne, Montreux, Munich, and New York City, the New York Times reports. Kerry’s “Energizer bunny” style as secretary of state made it look as if he were “chasing a deal” rather than leaving it to his subordinates to hammer out the details, veteran diplomats told the Times.

“Being secretary of state by odometer is a very false measure,” Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, told the Times weeks before the Iran deal was announced on July 14. “The administration is too eager. Iranians can smell this.” According to Armitage, Kerry’s willingness to “airmail himself in at the 11th and a half hour every time” erased Iran’s incentives to reveal its bottom line.

Senior U.S. officials countered that rather than sidelining lead negotiator Sherman, Kerry had worked closely and well with her. Moreover, the officials insisted that Kerry demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice a deal in the face of Iranian inflexibility.

It’s not unusual for the “big boss” to try to take control of high-stakes dealmaking and dispute resolution. But the presence of a CEO or other top leader at the negotiating table sends the following message, according to Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School professor Guhan Subramanian: “This deal must be so important to them that they had to bring in the big guns!” Such a message conveys to the other team that it can get much more out of the deal than anticipated.

To avoid seeming desperate to reach a deal, your organization should generally limit top bosses to forging connections and making introductions; leave it up to midlevel negotiating teams to work out the details. If necessary, you can involve top leaders on both sides to try to break an impasse or bring a deal in over the finish line—roles they couldn’t play if they were deeply immersed in day-to-day negotiations.

Of course, after negotiations commence, it can be awkward and even risky to try to rein in a boss who believes he or she should be closely involved. For this reason, be sure to include higher-ups in your team’s pre-negotiation strategy meetings. Discuss the hidden benefits of relying on them in an as-needed capacity. Then be sure to keep higher-ups apprised of your progress throughout the life of the negotiations and consult them for advice when necessary.

2. Broaden your perspective

When we feel desperate to reach a deal, it’s often because we see no other way out of a difficult predicament. By taking steps to view the negotiation at hand from a broader perspective, we can ease our fears and make a better impression on others.

The first, most obvious problem may be that your alternatives to the current negotiation are unappealing. The most obvious solution to a weak bargaining position is to do what you can to improve your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. That might mean looking for new negotiating partners and bargaining on multiple fronts, exploring ways to enhance the status quo, or making a plan for doing the deal at a future date when you or your side may feel more stable, whether financially or otherwise.

Second, desperation can also arise from the sense that there’s a lot riding on a deal: not just future business, but your long-term reputation, your work aspirations, or your organization’s financial health. For example, Kerry’s frenetic-seeming negotiating style could have been rooted in part in a desire to burnish his public image not long after a failed presidential run.
Try to resist the urge to view any particular deal as “make or break.” As much as it may feel that way in the moment, rarely is that the case. Over the course of your career as a negotiator, you will have plenty of successes and failures. You also will find ways to recover from what at first seem to be devastating setbacks. When you take the long view, you lessen your odds of sabotaging your negotiation with stressed-out decision making and desperate-seeming behavior.

Third, you may be able to put the negotiation in perspective by focusing more closely on the other side and not just yourself. What are the other side’s interests, priorities, and likely BATNA? Through such an analysis, you may recognize that the other side desires a deal with you just as much as you desire one with them.

If both of you have a weak BATNA, the good news is that there is a large zone of possible agreement, or ZOPA. The presence of a wide bargaining zone means that you should be able to work together to reach a value-creating deal, write Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman in their book Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond (Bantam, 2007). When two or more parties need one another very much, they have a stronger motivation than most negotiators do to ensure that a deal is struck.

3. Audit your blind spots

We may think we strike an appropriate tone in our negotiations—enthusiastic but not ingratiating, levelheaded but not standoffish—but because it’s impossible to get outside our own heads, we can never fully know how we are coming across to others. Our true feelings, including our fears and anxieties, tend to leak out through our facial expressions, nonverbal behavior, and tone of voice, write Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking, 2014). These fears also seep out through the decisions we make during a negotiation, such as calling someone three days in a row rather than giving him time to digest new information.

How can we become more aware of our “blind spots” in negotiation and take steps to address them? First, we can ask those we trust, such as close colleagues and friends, to give us feedback about how we are coming across. Stone and Heen advise asking specifically about how we might be “getting in our own way”—that is, worrying about what others think might be holding us back from reaching our goals. To encourage honest feedback, try to respond with curiosity and appreciation.

Negotiators in positions of power (such as Kerry) may have particular difficulty listening to and absorbing feedback that challenges their habits and practices. Unfortunately, power can make us unrealistically confident in our abilities. As a leader, work to accept the fact that all of us can improve our negotiation skills throughout the life of our careers.
Second, to avoid the temptation to discount upsetting feedback, look for patterns that emerge from discussions with others. Suppose that you have been repeatedly told (or gotten the sense) that you come across as aloof in business interactions. Deep down, you know that you are just shy. This doesn’t mean others are wrong but that your behavior is sending an incorrect impression you might want to try to adjust. For example, you might recognize the value of role-playing important negotiations with those you trust or engaging in low-stakes negotiations to improve your confidence and skills at the table.

Third, based on the feedback you receive about your blind spots, work on addressing your underlying tendencies rather than simply trying to change your surface behavior. For example, someone who tends to treat each negotiation as do-or-die may be motivated by deep-seated insecurities or strong internal pressure to succeed. Trying to appear more relaxed is unlikely to help either psychologically or strategically. In this case, you might benefit from asking people to comment on your strengths as well as your weaknesses as a way of bolstering your confidence. Or you might need to engage in deeper introspection or relaxation practices such as meditation to help you put your negotiations in perspective.
A final note: As you seek to create a positive impression in your negotiations, be careful not to sacrifice your authenticity and honesty in the process, cautions Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino in our “Dear Negotiation Coach” feature of this issue.

3 methods for curbing desperation

  • 1. Negotiate roles in advance.

Work to ensure team members and superiors share a common view of the role each person will play in the negotiation.

  • 2. Broaden your perspective.

Try to see beyond the current negotiation by developing alternatives, taking a long view of your career, and considering the other party’s needs.

  • 3. Audit your blind spots.

Seek feedback about your negotiating behavior, and make a concerted effort to improve.