Chief Executive Insights

The Martial Art of Negotiation

All negotiations, no matter how big or small, rely on the techniques of discovery and fluidity. Discovery involves learning the other party’s true desires and fluidity involves taking whatever form is needed to find a way through. These same qualities equate to essential tactics used in the martial arts. Applying martial arts techniques helps in mastering the art of negotiation.

Those who practice martial arts engage in a dynamic process of discovering their opponent’s skills and motivations. Martial arts students are also taught to search for an opening in their opponent’s defenses. By patiently waiting for and recognizing the opening, the confrontation eventually yields results. In negotiations, openings are opportunities or conceptual gaps that can be tested as a place to match one’s needs and desires with that of the counterparty’s.

Apply these techniques from the martial arts to master the art of negotiation:  

  1. Show respect.
    In the martial arts, you enter the dojo with great dignity and respect. Your walk is intentional, mindful, and relaxed. Enter prepared to learn. Open your mind and your heart so that you can see matters from the other party’s perspective. If you walk in like master of the universe, you lose power. That entry may massage your ego, but humility and respect will build trust.
  2. Get in the zone.
    To both a negotiator and a martial artist, you want to get into “the zone” — to be in the moment where you notice everything and miss nothing. Approach a negotiation relaxed, empty and quiet. Put aside any anger, tension, or aggression you feel that will block your ability to sense your counterparty. Listen with complete openness until the opportunity to present your product, service or position arises. Don’t rush or jump the gun. Be patient.
  3. Pay close attention.
    The stakes for not paying attention are very high in martial arts. You can get seriously injured if your attention wavers. Similarly in negotiations, the ability to pay close attention is a powerful skill. When doing so, you become able to sense the other party’s motivation and as a result their next move. Paying close attention prepares you for anything without being blocked by your own thoughts.
  4. Exude a Zenlike sense of calm.
    No path to understanding starts with sword waving. No path to understanding is achiever with threats or aggression. If the discussion becomes heated, change the tempo of the exchange by lowering your voice and saying something to diffuse the tension. Repeat matters already agreed upon. Back off, slow down and exude a calmness. You will not advance your cause by inflaming the accusations.
  5. Find wiggle room.
    Unlocking negotiating deadlocks can require incremental modifications, but there’s always something you can shift, even slightly, toward a better position. In such situations, particularly where the other side is able to exert more power, ask yourself where you can wiggle. What new variables can you introduce? Try to create space by creating possibilities that go more deeply into the counterparty’s interests and positions. Often you can use contingencies to find wiggle room.

Negotiators who apply the skills of the martial arts warrior can disengage from themselves and attain a state of calmness, attentiveness and openness that will give them an edge over their opponents.

Winning negotiators know how to remain respectful, to sense the other party’s motivations and to deflect threats. In this way, they guide the way to a successful outcome.

Written by Cash Nickerson.

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Cash Nickerson
Cash Nickerson is chairman of AKKA North America’s Business Unit. He was President, CFO, General Counsel, and the second largest shareholder of PDS Tech prior to its purchase by AKKA Technologies. Previous roles include attorney and marketing executive for Union Pacific Railroad, associate and then partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago, and chairman and CEO of an internet company. He teaches Negotiation as a Professor of Practice at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Law. Nickerson has authored several books, with his latest book, Negotiation as a Martial Art: Techniques to Master the Art of Human Exchange (Made for Success, July 2, 2021), named “Best New Release in Business Negotiations” by the Wall Street Journal. The book is featured in the CEOWORLD magazine's annual review of "Best Books to Read."

Cash Nickerson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.