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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 27: Define Shapeshifting Tactics

By Karen S. Walch

There are many ancient and classic laws about the acquisition of power through shapeshifting in an attempt to accomplish one’s goals or to destroy an enemy. “Shed your Skin like the Golden Cicada” from the ancient Chinese Thirty-Six Stratagems, for example, illustrates how to escape and regroup if you are in danger of defeat by another.  The goal of most classic shapeshifting tactics are designed as a deceptive means to destroy others, and often have sinister overtones to them.

This week’s law will not address the destructive nature of shapeshifting tactics, but will explore useful shapeshifting principles and how to apply them for more creative and satisfying negotiation outcomes. Metaphors and myths about shapeshifting exist in every culture and traditionally illustrate how someone can change in physical form, become another person, or even an animal!

Today, we will address less fantastical, but more practical ways 21st century negotiators can increase their power through their skills of adaptability and style switching as shapeshifting techniques.

Shapeshifting is a universal theme as old as ancient mythology and as modern as science fiction and nanotechnology.    The intention to transform and change shapes can be a purposeful or punitive one, and is an enduring, compelling human idea. When mythical characters or modern robots or phones can change shape or transform into a new form, power is created and desired needs and goals are obtained.

If a victim becomes a wolf or modern liquid alloys allow robots and electronics to shapeshift into something smaller or larger based on the user’s needs, new energy, abilities, and power are unleashed.

One of the most fundamental shapeshifting techniques negotiators use today is called style switching. When negotiators can style switch, they have the ability to use a flexible set of behaviors and social engagement skills in order to accomplish their negotiation goals.

Many of the negotiators I work with today point out how difficult style switching can be and that this involves a lot of personal reflection and skill. However, once someone is aware of their own cultural and negotiation style preferences, they are able to be more mindful and effective when applying their negotiation tactics.

Switching style or acting on the basis of a counterpart’s preferences or the negotiation situation increases the ability for negotiators to successfully achieve personal and career goals.

Erika recently conveyed an example about her learning process about shapeshifting in a negotiation. She pointed out that it is ironic that just when the style switching skill is most required, it is usually when we are least emotionally open to it.

She has noticed that she needs to style switch when there is a lot of tension or pressure tactics utilized by her counterparts. This is when she feels least likely to want to adapt her preferred accommodation negotiation style. Erika has found that with practice and reflection about her own behaviors, values and emotions, she is able to transcend her comfort zone to change her accommodation habits by practicing more problem solving skills.

She has become energized by her ability to accomplish many more of her negotiation goals through her ability to style switch.

Erika’s example illustrates a fundamental component to style switching skills. Curiosity and an open mind are necessary requirements for effective style switching. Because of Erika’s interest in learning, style switching is seen as an opportunity for enrichment rather than a threat to her personal integrity.

As social behavior and negotiation tactics shape and transform into new forms, it also transforms the assumptions about one’s egoistic self-interest to more socio centric ones.

What Erika and others have experienced is an “emotional shapeshifting” – an ability to read another’s emotions, to connect with negotiators mutual needs, and to adapt their negotiation style in order to influence others.

Emotional shapeshifting or negotiation style switching are not the same as staging a façade to mislead or deceive counterparts in the pursuit of egoistic interests.  This shapeshifting skill also requires a shift in consciousness where one sees the negotiation from a counter part’s perspective but one does not sacrifice their own interests in the process.

This kind of duality requires negotiators to have a strong sense of one’s own values, integrity and interests and needs as well as a willingness to adapt one’s style to improve the outcome.

The centeredness and mindfulness skills discussed in previous Laws help negotiators clarify one’s own assumptions, ideas and emotions which make it possible to notice differences in others’ behaviors and preferences. These skills can help to transform negotiation styles and create new ways to communicate and adapt in even the most difficult situations.

Negotiators can increase the ability to use both silence and strong communication skills; humility and self-confidence; quick thinking and reflection; caution and courage, and receptivity and resistance. A shapeshifter knows when to speak and when to be silent.

Shapeshifting also allows negotiators to share personal stories in a way that connects with others. Negotiators are able to negotiate “on the fly,” develop resilience and stand up for what they need.

This week we will continue to build upon mindfulness and centering principles. As Brent posted in Law 24, practice can cultivate “presence without arrogance; respecting while maintaining balance; accommodating without retreating; blending, shaping, and resolving without conceding.” You do not need to be a shaman to be a shapeshifter and it is something we unconsciously do daily in many of our social interactions.

However, you can increase your power as a negotiator when you make a deliberate effort to see the world through eyes other than those you would normally use.

Law 27 Exercise

1. Define a reflex, attitude or behavior pattern in your current negotiations.

2. Reflect on how open, attentive, receptive, or guarded you are about making a change?

3. Assess your perspective of the situation; what is out of your field of vision; how broad, narrow, or focused are you about your attitude?

4. Develop your responses to others as you pursue your goals.  Imagine what you will do or say and review what you are selectively ignoring or avoiding with your response.

Extra credit

For more on contemporary shapeshifting, see  Shapeshifting: Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation, John Perkins’ 1997 forerunner to Hoodwinked (Broadway Business, 2009).

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.

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