The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding

Laws of Power 16: Protect Self-Interest

By Karen S. Walch, Ph.D.

In many of the previous laws in this series, I have addressed how negotiators have long been aware that the protection and advancement of our their self-interests is a primary goal of any negotiation. The pursuit of self-interest in classic laws of power is seen as a core human motivation (sometimes the only) requirement in the acquisition of power in a negotiation. There are many examples of those who continue to assert that pure self-interest is paramount.  Classic laws of power draw on extensive historical anecdotes, concerning mostly military and political campaigns of the past.  However, we also currently can observe not only many political, but also economic and business negotiations that also have been founded on pure self-interest in order to maximize gains.

Last week I had an opportunity to work with and study a group of 30 professional real estate negotiators who work in a highly competitive California housing market. As they spoke of the current economic pressures they experience, I observed that there was a consistent key to success for the top performers despite these difficulties. These negotiators were able to collaborate and cooperate with not only their clients, but also other agents, brokers and appraisers who were potential adversaries in their unstable markets.

It was not only their talent and skills to collaborate in the midst of such volatility that was so critical, but their ability to have clarity about their own needs and self-interests. One of the primary competencies in this regard was also their preparation about how to say no in situations that would undermine their value and intentions as negotiators.

Their experiences illustrate William Ury’s work on how to negotiate with clarity through the “Power of a Positive No.” Ury points out that those who have great talent at achieving mutual gains in negotiation often find it difficult to say “no” to others. The universal problem in everyday situations, he points out, is filled with people on whom we depend on, but need to say “no” to.

Because of a sense of responsibility and, sometimes dependency, on customers, partners, clients, family members and friends, it is difficult to communicate that you cannot agree to a request.  Sometimes there is additional stress to ourselves if a valued customer needs delivery ahead of schedule, a friend asks us to participate in another charity or our family wants our attention when we are tired.

Collaborative negotiation requires participants to perfect the art and science of exercising our own self-interests while tending to the relationship. It is important to balance one’s own interests while facilitating a counterpart’s interest.  There is often a tendency for collaborative negotiators to accommodate by saying “yes” when they want to say no.

For others, they find themselves attacking or blaming others in stressful situations and will regret the impact of their sharp words.  There are others who tend to avoid a difficult negotiator and say nothing at all and pretend not to be bothered.  This decision to avoid such a situation, however, leaves them with an emotional sense of injustice and abuse which makes their lives miserable as they lose vitality and feel dread in the negotiation. As Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Like Ury, I have observed negotiators gain insight and power when they challenge the assumption that either their own self-interests or the relationship matter and must trump the other.  The critical key is to remember that it is not about giving up your own power or the relationship.  Ury uses the chestnut tree to illustrate the need for negotiators to have a very deep root system grounded in their own values and intentions which allow them to stand tall in order to say “no.”

This deep root system provides the courage and vitality to transform the social interactions that richly blossom into more sustainable and satisfying relationships. Negotiators can say “no” skillfully and wisely when they create and protect what they want, and change what does not work.

By saying “no” to competing demands for their time and energy, negotiators can create space for more creative and sustainable opportunities for themselves and others in their lives.

The key is to know deeply which people, activities and values really matter the most. One of the top real estate negotiators’ secrets I witnessed last week was that they understood how important it is to have a clear understanding of their own values and needs. This kind of mind, body and spirit alignment about their self-interests is the key to their top performance and the ability to say “no.” This is not an easy skill to perfect, but with practice and mindfulness it provides significant power.

These negotiators take the time to reflect about all that matters most to them on a personal, professional and spiritual level. They understand that their deeper needs about their own personal happiness, the safety of loved ones and their business success need to be protected. The mastery of understanding their deeper needs and when they need to say “no” to threats and demands of others is a discipline that needs practice, but provides great freedom to be who they truly are and to fulfill the positive intentions and purpose of their work.

Their examples illustrate what I often witness in those who reflect on their sense of purpose and intention in their work and their negotiations.  Those who understand how fear and negative emotions drive them to accommodate, attack or avoid learn to develop practices to reflect before reacting to stressful situations. High performing negotiators know that emotions are the signposts, point at their core needs, values and beliefs which guide their decision making as negotiators.

Through recognition of negative emotions and tense body, negotiators are able to transform their thinking to be more positive and fearless. One of the most direct ways to gain deeper awareness about our fears, needs and interests is to interpret one’s dreams while sleeping. That is, after you wake up!

You can learn a lot through the symbols and metaphors illustrated in your dreams. This is a powerful way to understand what your indisputable values, desires, and interests are at a subconscious level. Clarity about your values and needs provides the necessary precision required in order to protect those interests in any negotiation. Enjoy your dreams!

Law 16 Exercise:

1. What are you committed to create with your negotiations?

2. What core needs and values do you want to protect in your negotiations?

3. What can be improved or changed when your interests are threatened or abused?

Extra Credit

Whether dream anlysis is something new for your, or if you have been exploring your dreams for many years, visit the International Association of the Study of Dreams website: Their purpose is to promote an awareness and appreciation of dreams for professional and personal empowerment.  For more on how to say “no,” read, The Power of a Positive No, by William Ury (Bantam, 2007).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.