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Negotiation is an Art

What the lawyer had to learn from the artist

There are so many books and articles that talk about “the art of negotiation”. All experts agree: negotiation, like art, cannot be fully predictable. Negotiation and art are not linear: you know more or less the objective but can’t know exactly what will happen. It depends on so many variables that are as unpredictable as our own emotions. If negotiation is an art, I thought it would be interesting to look at the artistic mind and tell you what I have learnt from combining the legal and artistic professions. Now more than ever the world requires more collaborative ways of resolving conflicts and approaching negotiations. So why not explore how applying creative thinking onto everything we do. Done with living and working in silos! We take the same brain everywhere.

When I first started working as a lawyer, I thought it was all about “being right”, getting the most out of transaction, outsmarting others. It was about having the perfect strategy, identifying the other party’s weaknesses and our strengths. I naively believed that coming armed with facts and logic would work and if I used reason to explain my side of things, the other party would understand and agree. As you know, decisions are not purely logical, they are also emotional. Our formal education does not prepare us for negotiations, and some of us are trained to see business decisions and interactions, including negotiations, as logical, intellectual processes.

When you study arts, whether performing or creative, you learn to see things differently. The first surprise is that it is actually a process of “unlearning” the logical ways of approaching any type of interpersonal relationship. So let’s look at what negotiation and art have in common:

  • Art and negotiation require insight

The first question that comes up when meeting an artist is “where do you get your inspiration from”? it is not that simple to find a straight answer to this question. In fact, it is a process of permanent connection between the artists’ inner life and outer world. Inspiration seems to come from inside, most good ideas are generated spontaneously, but what generates them? You can just pray and hope that inspiration will result from some form of spiritual or divine connection, maybe the “eye of providence” or the “all knowing eye of good” will give you some insight, inner vision or higher knowledge into the occult mysteries. In a negotiation, there are many aspects that are occult to us: how do we know what to do, what is in the other party’s mind. What do they really want? How should I play my cards? A lot of mind guessing involved…

  • Artists and excellent negotiators are trained in observation

Actually artists do not just sit and wait for inspiration to come. In order to develop their insight, artists are trained to observe. It is this trained perceptual awareness that allows us to pay attention to both the inside and the outside world, and see both the detail and the whole picture. There are different dimensions of the artist’s sight:

  • First, formal sight will allow you to see a shape, volume,  distance/closeness , size, colour. Anyone trained in drawing will become aware of proportions, to see the “empty spaces”. Colours can be mentally deconstructed: you see dark and lighter shades and understand contrast and complementarities.
  • Then, there is an experiential or sensorial way of “seeing” things: these are the sensations or emotions that are intuitively and automatically generated when we observe.
  • Finally, we generate a perceptual view: beliefs, judgments, values.

The artist’s mind sees beyond the first contours: it detects lines, shadows, shapes and depth in a much richer view of reality.

Why is observation relevant and important for a negotiation? For many reasons: for a start, first impressions count; the way in which we first perceive our counterparties is going to have a psychological impact and trigger a conditioned framing in which we are going to interact. There is research that shows how certain physical facial traits can affect our ability to trust a person (eg smaller eyes, the shape of the eyebrows, the curve of the lips, etc.) These are unconscious biases. Because artists are trained to observe but are also aware of the effect or impact that things cause on others, they may be more open to question the lines between perception and reality. People who think they can build a case using only reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that drive decisions. Those who base their negotiation strategy solely on logic, risk relying on guesses, i.e. their assumptions and opinions. The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party sees the same you see. That’s why it is important to see how perception is formed: we can perhaps observe the same formal level, from then on, everything is perceived differently, coloured by your own judgment and previous experiences. An artist’s sight allows you to develop awareness of the perception process at a deeper level.

Remember that Perspective comes from Latin perspicere, "to see through".

  • Being a good observer helps developing empathy

Observation is at the heart of one of the most important qualities in negotiation: empathy. Artists are trained in sensitivity. Think of an actor and how quickly they can put themselves in the shoes of their character. I used to dance flamenco, when there is improvisation it is magical to see how all musicians and dancers are able to start and end at exactly the same time. Performing artists tune to the other artists and to the audience. That’s not a logical or mechanical process. It is intuitive. In a negotiation, feeling the temperature of the room, seeing whether tension is rising is a gift. Catching up emotional states and addressing them adequately is essential. If you are trained to observe, first your own needs, and then those of the others, you can also build a vision that considers the other side’s challenges and comes up with integrative solutions.

  • Artistic freedom does not mean lack of preparation

Bullet proof strategies do not exist. To be honest, inspiration, the right strategy, observation and vision are essential, and will take you far. But even the most talented artist or negotiator can become a headless chicken when things are complex. There is a saying in the military “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy”. Art means being prepared to experiment and adapt. It is a constant search, one that never ends.

  • “The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious” – Marcus Aurelius

Artists spend a lot of time practicing, drawing studies, they spend hours of training. Picasso made 147 sketches before painting his version of the Meninnes. If you are a ballet dancer, you know the number of hours you have spent at the bar doing “pliés”. Even in improvisational theater, actors have spent a lot of time training their voice, volume, inflexion, the way they stand. The process of artistic creation may look like chaos, but it is actually based on preparation. You can abandon yourself to the music, or let the brush do what it wants without thinking once you master the underlying technique. You do not have to worry about the choreography and you become free to improvise because you have fed your inspiration with sufficient observation and preparation. Everyone understands the need to rehearse for artistic performance. Yet in negotiation it is surprising to see that we spend very little time practicing and organising.

  • “Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation” – R. Schuller 

I have negotiated many international deals, and dealt with parties of different cultures. Consistently, the good negotiators are both able to think strategically but are also -independently of their seniority- personally involved in the tactical details. I’ve seen big strategies, big mouths, big meetings, and then disastrous failures simply because communication was messy, people were careless in the most basic organizational aspects. “Accidents” like circulating the wrong versions of contracts including internal comments – sometimes confidential or even offensive… , unprofessional drafting protocols where new wording is “sneaked in” or “deleted” affecting efficiency and trust, people engaging their organizations without having checked their own internal governance.

You can’t predict the outcome of a negotiation, but you can plan a process, organise a single entry point and a repository of your documents, coordinate information and assign roles. Agree the process with the other party, establish the rules and framework for transparency and trust.

I have been surprised many times by a simple truth in human nature: we tend to be lazy. We may have power and the smartest team on our side. Yet, those who have done their homework of researching content, drafting alternatives and organizing the process may end up achieving better results.

  • Develop a personal style and reputation

Good artists develop their personal style, something that makes them recognizable throughout their work. Even if they try different disciplines you will be able to distinguish their unique style. As a negotiator you also develop a style, and thus a reputation. Good artists learn to be self-critical, produce lots of creative ideas and then use a selection process to keep those worth pursuing. Many works are trashed or abandoned because they do not represent who we really are. They just don’t feel right. In a negotiation, it is good to think whether what you are doing is reprentative of who you are, your style and personality, and mainly your ethics.

  • Being “in-spirit”, connected to self and others

Inspiration means being “in –spirit”. Both in art and negotiations you need to get grounded, to be in tune with your own emotions, and feel the others, that is, to connect. You listen to understand, and not to oppose the other’s position. You can’t play music, paint or dance without complete presence of mind, here and now,” in the moment”, without making anxious projections about the interpretation of your work by others or worrying about the other person’s thoughts.

Presence is consciousness or awareness. That’s what artists experience when they are “in flow” or “in-spirit”, inspired.

When a negotiation is complex, you need to focus on the relationship. You will be able to explore solutions if you have taken care of the detailed preparation and you simply connect to the other. As Earl Wilson said, “Science may never come up with a better communication system than a coffee break”: your planning has to include time to build bridges. When the matter you negotiate is complex and matters, your communication choices have to prefer in-person meetings and phone calls over digital exchanges.

  • Mind the ego

Negotiation is a creative process. Just like any artistic creation, the process of idea formation is fragile. If we lose the connection and succumb to judgment stress takes over. We block. Artists’ block happens precisely because the focus shifts from the work onto ourselves. The ego is the worst enemy of a clear state of mind. Ask artists what they are thinking of when they are about to go on stage, or the moment they are painting: “nothing”. Blanco, or just “here and now”, focused entirely on what they are doing.

In a negotiation, anxiety comes mostly from uncertainty, sometimes from the other person’s behavior, but mostly from our own state of mind and associations: What will they think about me? What if they take advantage of me? Could I have done better? Self doubt is a constant distraction. In a negotiation we must juggle different emotions and stay in touch with ourselves and the others. That’s why it is an art. Being in touch with both the inner and outer world means that we don’t let all thoughts that cross our minds out and we don’t allow show all feelings, we don’t cover our insecurity with blames, aggression or defensive behavior.

  • It is about self-control

Every artist will tell you that it is very difficult to decide when to stop: too much messing around and you ruin it. A negotiation is also a work of self-control: know when to shut up and give space to the others to reflect and react. If you talk too much you risk irritating the other or appearing needy or greedy.

Let me finish with this old story of the apprentice artist. He thought he was talented and opened his shop. But nobody came to take classes with him. He was jealous of the old master, whom had lots of students and sold many works. The young apprentice thought “I will be smarter than him, I will humiliate him in public”. I will take this small bird between the palms of my hands and ask him to guess if the bird is alive or dead. If he says “dead”, I’ll let the bird fly, if he says “alive”, I’ll crash the bird into my hands and kill him first. Both ways he will be wrong. So he asked the master, in front of his class “Since you seem to know everything, can you tell me if the bird alive or dead?”. The old wise man paused and responded “The answer is in your hands my son”.

There is no secret to becoming a good artist or negotiator: it is not a science, it is an art. It is in your hands to feel and practice.

Painting “Still Life” by Mirna Hidalgo – MirnArt

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