“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
— “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu may be more than 2,000 years old, but that Chinese general knew a lot about the art of negotiation. I particularly like this quote as it contains one of my keys to a successful negotiation: educating myself as much as possible about my opponent.
I negotiate constantly. To be successful as a turnaround authority, I have to know how to negotiate with CEOs, bankers, employees, union workers, vendors, lawyers and emotional relatives.
When I’m involved in a tough negotiation I need to be prepared. Part of that preparation involves finding out as much as possible about the motivations of my opponent for that particular deal.
Let’s say I’m talking to a lender about settling an outstanding balance my client owes. Before I negotiate I’ll talk to my client to find out all the details on the outstanding balance and what he can afford to pay.
Then I try to assess what the needs of that lender are. Does he need to get this loan off his books quickly? Has he been trying to collect for a long time and he has a bad case of lender fatigue? Or maybe he’s new in his department and is trying to build a reputation as a tough negotiator.
I enter into negotiations with as much knowledge as I can and then as I began negotiations, try to determine more about what is driving the other person. Is it money, timing, company reputation?
While I consider myself an aggressive negotiator, I also negotiate in what I consider a positive and open way. I don’t go around behind the parties’ backs to try to undermine or manipulate the process by currying favor with the senior management or others involved in making decisions. I don’t make any implied promises on behalf of the companies I work for that I know they don’t plan to honor. As Otto Von Bismarck said, “When a man says that he approves something in principal, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it in practice.”
That is the second key to what I consider a successful negotiation: to come up with an acceptable deal for both parties. When possible, I try to follow the advice J. Paul Getty’s father gave him. “My father said, ‘You must never try to make all the money that’s in a deal. Let the other fellow make some money too, because if you have a reputation for always making all the money, you won’t have many deals.’”
Sun Tzu covered that topic in “The Art of War” as well, in a more poetic fashion. “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”
For more business advice, including a story of how creative negotiation involving a $3,000 mobile office saved a $15 million deal, please check out my new book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me.”