Negotiation: the art of letting someone else have it your way

I have a confession to make: I entered law school to become a better negotiator. Sure, I told myself that this was in service of others and that it was with the aim of benefiting society, but that's how it all started.

My mother
When I was a teenager living in Pickering, Ontario (just east of Toronto), my mother went back to school (interestingly at the University of Toronto where I now go to medical school). Now, this is a woman who made a new life for herself in Canada after growing up in Egypt. Someone who was one of the very few women in maths and sciences and who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from McGill University in the 1970's. She was an accomplished business woman having been the first female manager at Kraft in Canada after graduating from university. A business owner (she owned a Merle Norman store in the Pickering Town Centre). And a mother to two (I'm guessing difficult to raise) sons. Plus my dad worked at the same time and this was a time when mothers also did most of the cooking and cleaning around the house - or at least that's how it worked at our home.

My mother went back to school to study conflict resolution. She briefly entered a Master's of Business Administration (MBA) program, after first completing the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), but she didn't enjoy the program (and let's be honest, she probably knew half the material anyway).

To me, this wasn't a big deal at the time. It was just something my mother did. But it was a big deal. Imagine going back to school in your forties, but still having to do all of the other things that kept you busy in the first place: cooking, cleaning, raising kids, keeping on top of your kids' school activities and after-school extracurriculars. Imagine driving 45 minutes each way to evening classes and doing all of that.

My mother would come home and tell us all about her school work. It was fascinating. She told us about simulated negotiations that she conducted and about the lawyers that taught her (and they were almost always lawyers).

My interest in negotiation
At the same time, I remember hearing about a book called Getting to Yes. I thought it was a sales book (I don't remember my mother mentioning it, I remember thinking that my father recommended it to me and as he was a successful salesman, that's probably why I thought it was about sales). I didn't read it.

When I finally did pick up the book, it was in 2005. At the time, I was studying aviation in Australia at the University of Western Sydney. I fell in love with the book.

But I was an aviator and loving every minute of it. When I eventually discussed the book with my mum, she said something to the effect of, "Oh yes, I suggested that book to you years ago. You know, if you're really interested in negotiation, lawyers are the ones that do most of it - that's what they do." I thought, 'Thanks, mum. Like I'm going to become a lawyer.'

Flash forward to 2010. I had just earned my Airline Transport Pilot Licence and Class I flight instructor rating. I wanted to transition from teaching to airline flying. Unfortunately, the financial crisis had taken its toll on the aviation industry and the airlines simply weren't hiring.

By this point in my life, I was married and we were starting a family. Things had changed. I wanted to do more than 'just fly an airplane'. I wanted to help improve people's lives. I wanted to to be of service to others. But after months and months of job searching, I began to panic. What if I couldn't find a job? How would I provide for my family? How could I be such an accomplished pilot but be unable to find a decent job?

I realized for both short and long-term reasons, I needed a career change. As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, I applied to both law and medical school, and was only offered admission to law school. I thought hard about it. If I were a lawyer, I reasoned, I would be a much better negotiator. I could use that to help others and fight injustice (isn't this what all budding law students think?). It could be a path to the kind of service-oriented work I was looking for and also solve the career issues I was facing.

During law school at Osgoode Hall, I delved deeply into the theory and practice of negotiation and mediation. In the summer between the first and second years of law school, I was a Research Assistant at the Osgoode Mediation Centre. In the second year of law school, I completed the year-long Mediation Intensive Program and competed in mediation tournaments in the United States. In my final year of law school, I took the Lawyer as Negotiator course (one of the most coveted upper year classes at the law school due to its focus on practical negotiation skills and experience). Finally, I led the Osgoode Hall team to a first-place win at the 14th Annual International Alternative Dispute Resolution (INADR) Law School Mediation Tournament for both team mediation and individual mediator awards.

For the past few years, I have helped teach the Lawyer as Negotiator course at Osgoode Hall Law School and am continually impressed with the level of dedication and talent displayed by the students.

Negotiation resources
As you may have seen on the resources tab, I recommend three negotiation books:
  1. Getting to Yes: How To Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In (2nd ed) by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton
  2. Negotiation Genius by Deepak Malhotra & Max Bazerman
  3. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
Getting to Yes
The first book, Getting to Yes, is a must read, but negotiation theory has advanced since then. That said, I still refer to it. It is the foundation for negotiation. It's basic principles are:
  • Separate the people from the problem.
    • Be soft on the person in front of you, but hard on the problem.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
    • Instead of looking at "what" each party wants, consider why they want it.
  • Create options for mutual gain.
    • Get creative. How can this situation be used so that the parties are better off?
  • Insist on using objective criteria to help resolve differences of opinion.
    • e.g. What is the median salary for this kind of position in this city? What do comparable cars, houses, etc. sell for?
  • Develop your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).
    • What will you do if you cannot reach agreement?
Negotiation Genius
The second book, Negotiation Genius, is much more recent and focuses more on business transactions. It is as close to the Lawyer as Negotiator course in a single book as I have seen. In there, you'll see a strong focus on preparation and how to claim as much value as is reasonable. Negotiation Genius answers one of the biggest criticisms of Getting to Yes, which is that the book focuses too much on "win-win" and not enough on claiming the value that has been created. While Getting to Yes is the foundational text, Negotiation Genius gives a lot of practical tactical advice.

A great piece of advice for negotiators from Negotiation Genius is to see if a better deal can be negotiated even after you've reached agreement. You can say to your negotiation partner, "Listen, I know we've reached a deal and I think it's a good one. Do you want to see if we can do better? I'm not trying to scrub all of the hard work we've done, so we will only move away from the current deal if we both agree that this new agreement is a better one."

Never Split the Difference
The third book, Never Split the Difference, is a book that I've come to recently. It is written by the former lead hostage negotiator for the FBI. He describes the 'Harvard method' (seen in the previous two books) and says that his approach is fundamentally different (for the record, he did attend Harvard's Project on Negotiation, so he knows what he's talking about). I find that his focus is much more on emotions than anything else. It is a great addition to any negotiator's toolkit.

One suggestion from Never Split the Difference is about non-cash offers. "Ask yourself, 'What could they give that would almost get us do this for free?'"

I love negotiation and mediation. It is a uniquely practical skill set that has served me well. If you feel the same way, please let me know if you'd like to hear more about it.


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