Learning the art of negotiation, from West Point

Photo Credit: Department of State
Photo Credit: Department of State

This morning as I negotiated in my head on whether to go with yogurt & granola or a breakfast croissant, I looked over the first keynote speaker at True Venture’s True University. Major Aram Donigian, was the first keynote to discuss “Driving more effective results through negotiation: lessons learned from West Point”. Yes, military does negotiate – apparently quite often since learning from our mistakes in Iraq the first time round. I was looking forward to this talk, as I pulled the yogurt from the cooler.

Major Aram Donigian, Founding Co-Director at The West Point Negotiation Project was indeed a fascinating speaker. His failures and successes negotiating with tribal leaders in Afghanistan were intriguing to say the least; he had to deal with a language and cultural barrier with socio-political and religious sects combined with the necessities of war, military and low budgets. Kind of of puts my common notion of negotiation (salaries and holiday leave) to inexperienced shame. Yet in truth, the skills to negotiate with tribal leaders or with your co-worker, are the same.

You can spot an skilled negotiator easily – they don’t jump to conclusions, they don’t get hot-headed, they don’t interject what they think to be true, they don’t have one answer. No, the artful negotiator is the one patiently listening, asking questions and skillfully working to find a way for both parties to leave satisfied. Be it a land dispute or curfew, these tips will help you gain your counterparts trust and collaboration.

Major Donigian has five useful points to consider in a negotiation – and if you haven’t come to a decision by a certain point, you aren’t really following one of these five points as well as you could be.

1. Get the bigger picture. You only have 50% of the information you need – they have the other 50%. Ask questions, be humble, listen to their perspective. Things to ask include “What do I have wrong”, “Is there another way to explain this” or “Help me understand the situation”.

2. Uncover & collaborate. Avoid open-ended offers and instead ask what is important to them. Open yourself up for critique – even if they hate your ideas, it’s important to remember it’s not you they dislike, it’s the idea. So don’t take it personally.

3. Elicit genuine buy-in. Threats or being close minded in proposing a solution won’t work. What will work is relying on logic, capabilities and making it a 2-way conversation.

4. Build trust first. The person you are trying to negotiate with could be an important ally down the road, or in the worst situation, an enemy. Consider what the process is going to cost is you have to start at square one all over again? Best to build trust now.

5. Focus on the process, talk about the process. If you are at an impasse, cordially consider stepping away to refresh your options. The process of negotiating will be just as important as the end result. Stay focused and respectful.




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