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Just like any art, skillful negotiating requires practice!

Alan Smith

Tomorrow I have an appointment at the dentist. I can state pretty much with certainty and, I admit, comfort, that he knows something about teeth. Partly because the last time I went to see him with a damaged filling I left with it fixed, which, frankly, it would have been difficult for someone without any knowledge of teeth to have resolved. Unless of course he had been very lucky that day and had managed to wing it.

He also has a diploma on the wall which suggests that he gave a good account of himself in his exams and had to look at a few thousand other teeth, with a degree of success, before he asked to look at mine.

On the weekend, my wife and I are going to a piano recital. Not something I have ever done before, and to be honest, suspect I will never do again. It is at a theatre near where we live. I can’t say the pianist’s name with any degree of skill (sounds very foreign, so she must be good).

I can reasonably expect her to get some pretty good sounds to emit from the piano. It would be rare indeed to have a pianist who is coming to the end of what appears to be a fairly long tour to have sold out purely by a random act of erratically pounding the keys of an ivory grand.

But how many of us can claim the same level of certainty about the skill level of either ourselves or our counterpart when we enter the negotiation room to conduct a business discussion around a commercially sensitive contract, complaint or conflict?

Now I know there is possibly no such thing as the perfect deal, where both parties achieve the absolute best agreement by trading and creating value in the optimum way, and have the appropriate skill level to engage the other side to do the same in a largely consensual manner.

But I also know that for many of us the negotiation is a largely unplanned and unrehearsed affair. In the classrooms in which we teach and, scarily, in the boardrooms where we consult, the strategy that we hear has most often been used by our clients has been that they will wait and see what the other side does, and then act.

My worry is that the most I can infer is that the guys on either side of the table (or all the sides in a multi lateral discussion) are allowing the direction of the negotiation to be defined by equally tentative participants.

Of course some people are instinctively better than others. But even instincts need to be refined and honed. Maybe in the classroom, or perhaps by a good coach, one on one.

Even natural born winners' performance can be improved, like the dentist and pianist, by practice. Leave chance to those who don't know better and embrace the principal behind the 10 000 hours concept-practice may not make perfect-but it will make you a wiser and more prepared negotiator! 

Alan Smith

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