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Hollywood Has a Real Grasp of Reality

Stephen White

There are interminable lists of top negotiating dos and don’ts available on the internet, in books, and on training courses. They mainly contain pieces of sensible, if obvious, advice about how negotiators should conduct themselves. You may have read some of these lists, and you may even have been moved to try some of the tips. You certainly don’t need to see another one.

Even if Hollywood script writers have seen any of these pieces they have studiously ignored them in their depiction of negotiating practice, with some great results. Here is my list of examples I think you will enjoy. Don’t even think about trying them out on your customers without a profound conversation with your line manager first.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT with Bruce Willis

I once did this with a stubborn buyer who didn’t like me; the sentiment was reciprocated. Instead of blowing his head off I went over it to his boss to see if I would get a better reception. I didn’t. I came to the conclusion that to negotiate like Bruce Willis requires a fearless disposition and a complete lack of brains.

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY with Catherine Zeta Jones and George Clooney

I think the Danish are the reason why this negotiation failed. If either of the lawyers had stuffed one in his mouth and shut up as a result the outcome might have been dramatically different. 

 LIFE OF BRIAN with Graham Chapman and Michael Palin 

Well done to the scriptwriters for recognising this is a haggle, not a negotiation, as Michael Palin says. It always reminds me of a haggle in a linen shop in Gibraltar which turned into a great lesson. The shopkeeper and I haggled Life-of-Brian-style over the price of a tablecloth and eventually we were separated by only £1. There was a stand-off. To break the impasse I offered to improve my offer by 50p if he gave me a handkerchief in return. With alacrity he agreed to my ‘split the difference’ proposal, but insisted that I gave him an extra 1p for the handkerchief because ‘everything has a value’. Good work on his side. Always look for a slightly better deal.

ARGO with Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin and Richard Kind

It demonstrates that if you have a little more information than the guy on the other side of the table, you will have the upper hand. Yeah – in Hollywood. Never seems to work in the real world.

NIGHT AT THE OPERA with Chico and Groucho Marx

A heart-warming and life affirming clip for all of us who have spent months trying to get a customer’s legal department to come to their senses and take out of their standard Purchasing Terms the elements which are grossly unfair, irrelevant or just plain stupid. This is the way to do it.

DJANGO UNCHAINED with Leonardo di Caprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson and Kerry Washington 

It’s interesting how many of these movie clips require the successful negotiator to be touting a significant piece of hardware; in this case a hammer. Maybe sales managers should look at this idea when reviewing a typical sales kit: company car, laptop, briefcase, samples, AK47………

JUST GO WITH IT with Adam Sandler and Bailee Madison

At last, an actual negotiation with several variables in play and some good banter between the players. I think we all recognise that telling the counterparty you would have settled for a much less valuable deal is not best practice, but be aware that sometimes, you do it unwittingly. Once doing some coaching work with a procurement team I sat in on a hard-nosed negotiation which ended with a deal when the two salesmen reluctantly made a final concession. They left the buyer’s office, and we watched from the buyer’s 3rd floor window as they made their way through the car-park high-fiving. Which left me with one very unhappy buyer plotting revenge.

So, as expected, Hollywood is la-la land as far as good negotiating practice is concerned. Still, it can lead to some very attractive fantasising about how we would really like to behave at our next customer meeting. Just keep it as a fantasy.

Stephen White

Stephen White
More by Stephen White:
My mother and the EU
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