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Loosening the Lead in Negotiations

Keith Stacey

Been watching the dog-father lately? Well it’s a ‘must watch’ show for all successful negotiators. In a recent episode there’s this woman you see, and she holds this dog tight on his lead. She’s anxious that he’ll lunge at passers by - because, yes, he has before. And each time she walks her dog, she gets even more stressed out, particularly on paths where others are coming towards her and she drags in the lead ‘til she’s leaning over, just about holding his collar.


And what does the dog do? Well, you’d never pick it, but he gets stressed too! The hairs on his neck are raised in fear and he’s in attack mode – teeth bared, ears flattened. If anyone gets near him, he snarls at them.


So what’s the advice from the dog-father? Give him his head!!! Loosen the lead, chill out yourself, speak calmly and keep moving. Don’t pass your tension onto the dog.   And guess what? It works. After a few practices, she lets out the lead, chills out, speaks calmly and keeps moving. And he trots along happily beside her, even when others come their way.


When we speak across the negotiating table, people can sense if we’re tense. If we are under time constraints, if we worry about losing ground, if we’re thinking this really is ‘sheep stations’, then we set up reactions that can become barriers to positive outcomes. Human beings can taste fear and it makes us behave defensively. 


In my decades of negotiations, I’ve found that people are basically reasonable. They’re trying to reach a sensible resolution and they understand that they might not get everything their way. But if your negotiation style tries to restrict their ability to be themselves, to think and speak freely, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. Big time. And like the dog, they’ll arc up. They’ll be so busy trying to prove themselves that they won’t listen or be open to engaging in the complex processes of negotiation.   


So how can you be calm in the face of potential conflict?  You need:


  • A clear understanding of what you are attempting to achieve as a team
  • Shared understandings of areas of flexibility
  • Good research in the subject matter and the counterparty and
  • An experienced team with well defined tasks.  


Add trust, honesty and confidence and you have the basis for the best possible deal.                                     

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