The art of negotiation

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What is the difference between letting go and capitulating?

How do you know which one is what?

Where does the courage lie?

When I was a young girl, my father taught me a very important concept, a key part of his modus operandi, if you wish: 'Whatever you want to get out of me, you’ll have to badger/pester me with it if you want me to give it to you.’ He used a French word, 'tanner', the process of tanning leather, which here I am trying to find an apt translation for.

His original expression offered a notion of the transformation that would happen to him if I managed to demand something consistently over time. Persistence was my first lesson in negotiation.

What did I do with it? I 'tanned' him until he let me have a stereo in my bedroom. For a teenage budding singer, that was a huge victory. For my neighbours (including my family), maybe less so.

The second piece of advice I got about negotiation was in my early 20’s, delivered by my friend Carol, herself pretty savvy with a good business mindset, also inherited from her father: 'It's not about knowing what you want. Start by being clear about what you don't want, what you will not accept. And build from there.’

Once we’re clear about where we draw the line and it's expressed, she suggests we let the other person mull over and decide if they will be amenable to our terms. 'Otherwise, be ready to walk away.' It stayed with me and has been a reliable tool ever since.

Why is this on my mind? Well, it so happens that a couple of women I know have recently landed unexpectedly in situations of conflict and subsequent difficult negotiations. Then, it happened to me too, also out of the blue. Personal, complicated, mindful communication should be my north star, but let's be honest, it's really hard.


When we feel attacked, cornered, judged, it’s hard to be mindful. We are more likely to get into a panicked, reactive state, whether that's at work or at home. Once destabilised, I noticed in my own life that the stories become repetitive, a trance-like mind, essentially self-reinforcing the negative emotions. When I do notice that, I tend to go for a walk, I find that fresh air and a different perspective, even when it's a physical repositioning of myself, out of my office, out of the home, out of the context, really opens up new avenues.

Over the course of several conversations, I realised all three of us were ready to give up our right to negotiate, throw in the towel - ready to capitulate, for the sake of getting rid of the unpleasant situation, or disentangle from nasty behaviours and toxic relationships.

I can see the value in letting go. I’ve been exploring this recently in my own life. You know, when can you get rid of the extra baggage, the old stories you have been telling yourself that no longer serve you. It’s so good to see some things go, water under the bridge, that kind of thing.

While I am cultivating this art of knowing what to let go of and when something pulled at me, a hunch that my behaviour, in this case, felt unlike me; unnatural, misaligned. That’s when I asked myself about the difference between letting go and simply capitulating.

The last couple of years of Mindfulness Meditation training, as well as coaching training, have been a wider invitation for me to explore the emotions and feelings in my body. I feel quite at home in intellectual realms, so connecting to a more visceral sense, whether in simple daily meditation or in more specific practices like RAIN, has been a journey of discovery.

It’s not that I haven’t had a good relationship with my instinct. But I think I lost sight of it for a while when I was a teenager and this carried on right into early adulthood - but that is a story for another time.

I feel like I am still very much a beginner in this practice of inner listening and I invite you to nurture this incredibly important capacity that we have to check in with ourselves. There is much to be gained from this internal compass or North Star, a direct (if odd) tool to find out whether we should go left or right, say yes or no.

Over the course of the conversation that had pushed me over the edge, I knew that I felt deeply uncomfortable. I didn’t question that, it was rational, like an equation: we are in disagreement = discomfort will arise. I failed to go investigate for a couple of days. Then, finally, thanks to journaling and this work of inner inquiry, I got the A-HA moment of all my A-HA moments.


So of course, that explains why it’s so hard to trust this non-intellectual entity, or to interpret or even to communicate its content to others externally. Other than via behaviour of course.

Thankfully persistent, I picked up my course-work on negotiations and powerful communication (from Tara Mohr's Playing Big Facilitator training). Within minutes of reading, another revelation dawned on me: in my own communication to the others, I wasn’t clear.

Who cares what they want: what was it that I needed? And even now, what do I want? What is the outcome I am seeking? Shockingly, it was rather fuzzy.

My second brain had only offered a now unmistakable ‘this is not what I want’ feedback. Nonetheless, I had to get to work and get to the bottom of this inquiry, or ‘aller au fond des choses’ as we say in French. Interestingly, clarity is paramount to me, murkiness implies shady intentions. No wonder I love crystal clear waters to swim in, I need to see all the way down to the bottom to feel safe. I like to know where I stand.

Metaphors in hand, I could see a new path forward, which included self resourcing for safety. And it wasn’t time to capitulate.


I can’t claim to have always intentionally done an amazing job when negotiating for personal advancement during the course of my career. But I did always do pretty well and I remembered Carol's advice over the years, however I didn’t badger anyone. Perhaps my dad’s invitation had impressed upon me a sense of worthiness that my inner critic never shushed.

At the corporate level, I was taught well and was entrusted to negotiate for the company. For this, I closely relied on solicitors, whether for HR or IP or commercial terms. I went to tell a couple of large retailer CEOs our wants, in so doing I tore up some pretty big contracts, creating equally big opportunities. In that realm, I was empowered, I had knowledge, I had support. Does it translate outside the boardroom? Not always, no. I'm sure a lot of you who read me will find that to be true for you as well.

My heart breaks when I recall the many instances of shockingly bad treatment my female colleagues have experienced. Whether male executives were openly praying on the weakness of women, or speaking down about them, behind closed doors, when they failed to advocate for themselves properly, or whether they were criticizing those who, standing up for themselves, refused terms that were not acceptable to them, I am reeling at the memories. I've heard women labelled ‘bitchy’, 'blonde', ‘too complicated’, or plain ‘stupid’.

Painfully, I’ve got to take stock of the fact that I heard it all and didn’t yell back at the people who said these awful things. That’s my own issue about communicating with power. I may be a better than average negotiator, but trapped in hierarchically complex webs, untrained, doubting my own power, I found another way; I chose to mentor and advocate for the people who were either in my teams or came seeking support.

When I think about it, I witnessed and heard of some pretty serious bullying in the past twenty years, against both men and women. Lots of tears were shed, due to tactical and rather despicable games played to destabilise team members in and around a time of upcoming negotiations. No wonder so many of us do capitulate.

Now, looking behind the word, I see that from the definition itself, there are a couple of different ways to consider the options available to us:

Capitulating as the action of ceasing to resist an opponent or demand, akin to giving up.

Capitulating as obtaining an agreement or set of conditions. Letting go under specific agreed terms.

In a recent podcast interview, writer Elizabeth Lesser offered some poignant thoughts about trying to go a day without using war and violent sports metaphors (boxing or wrestling) we all use in daily life. ‘No holds barred’ for example is a boxing metaphor that means you can do everything in the ring, including kill somebody’. This of course dates back a few decades and no longer represents the sport, but I think you all get the gist. She suggests that language reflects what we value in our culture. Look to your country's statues for further confirmation.

It’s only by becoming more aware of this, that in the future, we can tell a different story, a story that equally embraces the power of women as well as men.

By expressly valuing masculine qualities over feminine ones, we consistently set women up to underperform. This research study around a mock negotiation with men and women paired as buyers and sellers illustrates this point, with results directly tied to the upfront information ahead of the negotiation.

‘Not only did women perform better when given the special information, but they also aimed higher from the start. In the pairs told that highly skilled negotiators possessed great listening, empathy and communication skills, women set much higher goals for themselves in the negotiation. Similarly, the men in these pairs set lower goals for themselves than the men in the control group. The new ideas about the feminine skills needed for successful negotiation changed everyone’s expectations of how well they could do.’ As Tara Mohr explains.

Thanks to this line of thought, I was reminded that in viewing negotiations as a war against another, whether a person or an entity, we forget or miss the importance of collaboration and empathy. This was even reinforced by Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator, in his Masterclass. Asked if his tactics were useful for everyday negotiations, he joked: “Only where humans are involved.”

Borrowing from the various people mentioned here, I’m going ahead feeling clear-headed. Importantly, I try to bring myself back to my deep intention and even attached a few keywords to help me frame the process in a new light:



Deep listening (to myself and others, and my gut-instinct)

Empathy (understand the other person’s worldview)

Flexible thinking/openness

I also noted ‘make enjoyable’ which I think is my way to highlight that a sense of dread is not conducive to my best performance.

Bouncing around these concepts for the past 10 days, I feel like I have been on a long journey, a fruitful one. Yet I had a sense something was missing when I finished this draft. The above forgets this one essential component of our human experience: our interconnectedness.

We are completely interrelated with everyone else, including the people on the opposite side. In the process of ‘othering’ each other, we risk demonising the other side, losing sight that our lives and our futures are tied together. And potentially creating heavy baggage for ourselves.

Personally, I prefer to feel lighter, working towards letting things go - in my own time of course. It’s certainly a work in progress, one that I hope you’ll join me in exploring.