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What I Learned Negotiating for a Living

I learned how to get what I wanted most of the time. More important than winning, I learned when not to win
What I Learned Negotiating for a Living
All images by Author

Greetings friends!

My team and I negotiated every kind of contract you can imagine. More than 10 million of them over the twenty-year period I served as General Counsel of an S&P 500 public company.

From tiny supply agreements to executive compensation deals. Sales agreements no one ever looked at again and acquisitions you’ve read about in the paper.

I learned how to get what I wanted most of the time. I was ruthless because I thought it was necessary. It took me years to gain the wisdom to approach negotiations mindfully.

Today I’d like to give you another way to think about getting what you want.

How I Became a Negotiation Juggernaut

Although I possessed a fiercely determined streak from early on, I blossomed as a negotiator thanks to our Chairman and CEO.

He was one of those rare people who possessed a genuine reality distortion field in the sense that he often expected us to deliver impossible things. Just flat out, “No, that’s not possible, not today and not in a million years.”

What made him special or, now that I think about it, what made the team around him special is that we found a way to deliver on his impossible demands. Routinely, and far more often than we had any reason to expect.

Is it stressful going into a negotiation with a preposterous set of objectives? Unbearably so. But the first time I achieved one of those herculean tasks, something happened to my view of the world and my self-confidence.

I learned I could do the impossible and that is an amazing feeling. Suddenly, merely difficult challenges seemed trivial in comparison.

Closeup of a silver colored metal handle

What I Learned From Negotiation Success

My negotiation success taught me several lessons that I’ve put to use elsewhere in my life.

  • My doubts are an unreliable guide to my capabilities
  • I don’t truly know what I can do until I commit to not failing
  • It is thus appropriate to set my sights on Olympian heights
  • It is fair for me to ask others to deliver the seemingly impossible

It’s not about what you ultimately achieve. It’s about realizing that you should not place any limits on your or others’ performance.

What a Negotiation Win Won’t Teach You

Winning feels good, especially when it’s against long odds. That winning feeling tells you nothing, however, about whether your goal was a worthy one.

We once pursued a competitor in an intellectual property infringement case. Mercilessly and relentlessly. We bent the world to our view and decisively won our case. Bankrupting our competitor, leading to their sale to another market participant, and creating the seeds for an even stronger future competitor.

Closeup of a thin metal handle above a rusty gray circle

Or consider one of the times we failed in a negotiation. This happened sometimes with monopolists (think software providers) or some of our largest customers. They could, and often did, simply insist that we accept their terms. No discussion and certainly no negotiation.

Imagine how it feels being forced to submit to someone just because they can. Do you feel unfairly treated and taken advantage of? Check. Not only that but angry as hell. And likely looking for a way to balance the scales again.

These are suboptimal outcomes for everyone, despite the initial appearance of winning. Focusing too much on a perceived win can blind us to the large set of outcomes that are better for one side without harming the other.

So what’s a sounder way to approach negotiations?

Consider Your Negotiations (and Your Life) in Context

My epiphany came when I realized that no negotiation is a one-off. There is always a before and an after.

If you are selling to a customer, do you expect to have an ongoing relationship with them? What will happen to that relationship if you press every advantage, just because you can?

Even the deals that seem entirely transactional, in the sense that the parties will never cross paths again, create ripples in how others perceive you. People will notice, and interact with you accordingly.

And how you behave in negotiations comes to shape how you perceive yourself. Do you always win, no matter the cost? Or do you demonstrate kindness by being alert to opportunities to help others when it costs you but little?

Close up of green painted rusty metal handle

These negotiation principles apply to our lives more broadly. We can pursue whatever we want in life. If we’re willing to pay the cost, we can achieve just about anything we set our minds to.

My advice is to be careful viewing your goals as transactional or one-off. What you do to achieve your goals will affect what your life looks like once you’ve achieved them.

I still believe I can get whatever I want in a negotiation. But now I prepare by thinking more about what I should want before I go about getting it.

Be well.

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This article appeared originally on Medium in the publication Illumination.