EXPERTS have been telling us for years that if we want to succeed as negotiators, we should be less concerned about our position and the “win” right now, and take a partnering approach with our clients, investing in the longer term and understanding the bigger picture.

This starts when we “place a higher priority on discovering what a win looks like for the other person”, according to business psychologist and author Harvey Robbins.

William Ury and Roger Fisher, in the book Getting To Yes, remind us we must make sure we don’t get completely “stuck” within what we want out of the negotiation.

That is, we should avoid being so fixed on our goal, seeing merely our own position, clinging to our narrow perspective that we can’t begin to understand theirs.

In theory, this sounds effective. In reality, however, when the stakes are high, tension is increasing and exasperation consumes us, it is easy to forget. So what can we do?

What if we take a slightly unusual approach in our negotiations by keeping in mind the two Chinese astrological elements of metal and water? Or more specifically: Less metal, more water.

Across the world when human beings think about metal, we typically see it as immovable and unyielding. We think the opposite of water — for most of us it is fluid and adaptable.

Chinese astrologers have identified that humans who behave with forcefulness, over-confidence and stubbornness are like the “metal” element.

During dialogues, these people tend to hold their ground irrefutably, unafraid of the consequences of their fixed behaviour, even if it means ultimately cutting ties with the other person.

In the negotiating room, while this could result in a short-term win, it will almost certainly mean the loss of the relationship in the long term.

Yet astrologers have also identified that people communicating and behaving with flexibility, compassion and open-mindedness are demonstrating typical “water” characteristics.

In a negotiation, this means they are likely to discuss challenges and disagreements more creatively, with less judgment, until a satisfying solution can be found, even if it is an unexpected one.

Can we, as negotiators, remember not to get stuck like metal, and be more fluid like water, instead?


Water works

But does water actually get where it wants to go? If we negotiate with flexibility, compassion and open-mindedness, will we be able to achieve our goals?

Absolutely. Like water, we may have to unexpectedly meander, go round challenges, over obstacles, shift perspectives and change direction to get where we want to go in the end.

By investing a little more time, taking a few more risks, keeping focused on the end-goal and not the immediate barrier (such as the client’s pushback to our suggestion), water always achieves its objective: It gets downhill and arrives at the ocean.

The investments of longer time and more flexibility pay off.

In our negotiations, it’s easy to take a “metal” approach.  We think we have to play hard ball; to dig in and hang on to what we want at all costs; not to budge, concede or give an inch; to show them who’s the boss.

This often results in either short-term, transactional relationships or in stalemates where no solution at all is reached.

How does such a “metal” approach play out in a negotiation?

•  We don’t listen to the other person;

•  We focus on our views almost exclusively;

•  We “tell” much more than we ask;

•  Tension and stress in the room increase;

•  Emotions escalate, impacting negatively on our communication and behaviour with closed body language, raised voices and negative language; and

•  We either “push” our preferences forcefully onto the other person, or we shut down, given them the silent treatment and withdraw.

A “water” approach in a negotiation would include these characteristics:

•  We listen actively to the other person;

•  We focus on understanding his views;

•  We “ask” much more than “tell”;

•  The conversation flows rhythmically, with minimal (or nil) tension;

•  Our emotions remain in check while we communicate with an open body, a moderate-volume voice and inclusive-style vocabulary; and

•  The dialogue is actually a dialogue (not a monologue or excessive silence).

Once we are listening, questioning, flexible, open and approachable, like a stream finding its way downhill over rocks and around boulders, we too can find our way forward towards our negotiation goal.


Article by Nicole Stinton, a coach and public speaker, e-mail