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The Art of Negotiation: Debunking the Myths and Rules

Negotiation - there are no rules

In the realm of personal, business, and international relations, one key required skill is negotiation. Negotiation is much more than just a fundamental tool used in business meetings or political discussions; it is a crucial part of human interaction. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no stringent rules to a successful negotiation.


Negotiation is a delicate balance of perspectives and interests, a complex process that intertwines psychology, communication, strategy, and an understanding of human behaviour. To think that this multifaceted process could be constrained within a set of inflexible rules is not only simplistic but also disregards the versatility that defines human nature and interactions. Most good negotiators aim for a "win - win" scenario. But many negotiators that I have met can only think of winning and in the process fail.

Shattering the Myth of Fixed Rules

One primary reason why there cannot be hard and fast rules in negotiation is the sheer diversity of contexts and individuals involved. Every negotiation is unique, involving different parties with different needs, preferences, experiences, and perspectives. The parameters change, the stakes differ, and the desired outcomes vary. This implies that what works in one negotiation may be completely ineffective in another.

For instance, while a more direct and confrontational style may be effective in a high-stakes business negotiation, it could be counterproductive in a diplomatic setting where fostering relationships is paramount. A "one-size-fits-all" strategy not only fails to account for the varying nature of negotiations but can also prove detrimental in the long run.

The Fluid Nature of Successful Negotiations

Understanding the fluid nature of negotiation is crucial to mastering this skill. Negotiation is not a finite game with defined winners and losers, rather it's an evolving process that seeks to balance different interests towards a common goal. Therefore, the idea of successful negotiation extends beyond immediate gain. It entails fostering relationships, creating a reputation for fairness, and paving the way for future collaborations.

This perspective underscores the absence of set rules. The best negotiators understand the value of adaptability and are prepared to change and not follow a prescribed path. They are experts at reading the room, adapting their style, and altering their strategies based on the situation at hand.

Power of Empathy, Listening, and Creativity

Although there are no set rules to negotiation, there are certain qualities that effective negotiators tend to exhibit. Empathy and active listening are among them.

Understanding the other party's needs, fears, desires, and motivations is critical to finding common ground and reaching a mutually beneficial agreement. This requires active listening and empathy, which allow for more nuanced and responsive strategies. No successful negotiation can be achieved without some change on all sides along the way.

"Be prepared for change"

Likewise, creativity plays a pivotal role in successful negotiations. A successful negotiation is often about expanding the pie rather than just dividing it. It involves brainstorming, generating options, and finding innovative solutions to satisfy the interests of all parties involved.

Respect local custom and tradition

Negotiation practices differ significantly across cultures, reflecting the underlying values, societal norms, and business protocols unique to each country. Understanding these cultural nuances is essential for successful international negotiations. For example let's delve into how the negotiation processes in China and Japan embody these differences.

Negotiation in China - ShapedLogic

China - negotiations for Laowai (or gwailou in Cantonese).

Negotiation in mainland China is highly influenced by the country's deep-rooted Confucian values, such as respect for hierarchy, emphasis on relationships ('Guanxi - 关系'), and the concept of 'face' (reputation, respect, and dignity). Hong Kong can be very different due to the history of the area and the western business background.

The process often starts with relationship-building, which involves frequent social engagements and personal bonding. Trust is paramount; Chinese negotiators prefer to do business with people they know and trust, hence these early interactions are crucial in laying the foundation for future negotiations.

The Chinese negotiation style is typically indirect and non-confrontational, preferring subtle, non-verbal cues over explicit statements. They consider patience a virtue, so negotiations may take a long time as they believe in exhaustively discussing all details before reaching an agreement.

The concept of 'face' is pivotal in Chinese society. Therefore, maintaining mutual respect, avoiding public criticism, and allowing your counterparts to concede without losing face are all essential aspects of the negotiation process.

The Art of War - do your homework

Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" is a timeless piece of literature that has profoundly influenced strategic thinking, not only in warfare but also in various other fields such as business, sports, and politics. Interestingly, its principles can also be applied to negotiation, as it offers valuable insights into managing conflicts, understanding opponents, and strategically planning for success.

Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" teaches that the key to success lies in strategic planning, understanding opponents, and being adaptable to changing circumstances.

Japan - negotiations for gaijin.

Japanese negotiation style, much like China, is influenced by cultural values, in this case, 'wa - 和' (harmony) and 'honne - 本音' and 'tatemae - 建前' (the contrast between a person's true feelings and the behavior and opinions one displays in public).

Like in China, building relationships and trust are vital preludes to business negotiations in Japan. The process can be time-consuming, with an emphasis on group consensus rather than individual decision-making. Decisions are typically made by the highest-ranking individuals, but they prefer to have group consensus before proceeding.

Japanese negotiators often avoid direct confrontation, prioritising harmony and consensus over individual victory. They employ polite language, vague statements, silence, and non-verbal cues rather than overtly expressing disagreement.

The concept of 'honne' and 'tatemae' is significant in understanding Japanese negotiations. They may communicate their 'tatemae' (public stance) in formal meetings while 'honne' (true feelings) is often reserved for informal, private settings. Hence, post-meeting social events can be just as crucial for understanding your counterparts' true intentions.

The Japanese negotiation process may appear slow to Western standards because every detail needs to be scrutinised and agreed upon collectively. Rushing this process can be seen as disrespectful.

Go Rin No Sho and Negotiation - ShapedLogic

"Do not seek to win, seek to not lose"

Miyamoto Musashi's "Go Rin No Sho or Book of Five Rings", similar to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," teaches us that the principles of martial strategy can be translated into negotiation strategy. Both rely on understanding others, staying adaptable, and maintaining a clear mind, among other tactics. While "The Book of Five Rings" was written with the sword in mind, its wisdom can indeed help us wield the pen in the boardroom.

The only rule: there are no rules

In both China and Japan, the negotiation process is not just about the final agreement but also about building and maintaining relationships and respect. Therefore, understanding these cultural nuances can significantly enhance your ability to negotiate successfully in these contexts. It's crucial to do your homework about cultural differences and respect them throughout the negotiation process. Patience, adaptability, and sensitivity to indirect communication are key factors when negotiating in these cultures.

In the end, the skill of negotiation is not about adhering to a set of fixed rules but rather about understanding, adapting, and maneuvering within the fluid dynamics of human interaction.

A successful negotiator is akin to a masterful artist, with their palette consisting of communication, empathy, flexibility, and creativity. They understand that each negotiation canvas is unique and requires a different blend of colours.

So, the next time you find yourself in a negotiation, remember that there are no hard and fast rules. Be present, be adaptable, and strive for mutually beneficial outcomes. Your success will likely be measured not only in the immediate gain but also in the long-term relationships you build and the reputation you create.

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Author: John Debrincat FACS, MAICD

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