Mind Over Matter – the Characteristics of a Great Negotiator

Paul Sills

Barrister and mediator Paul Sills looks into what makes a great negotiator. 

“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” – John F Kennedy


Great negotiators are fearless – they never hesitate to engage with their opponents if their engagement may help advance matters. But what turns good into great? The characteristics of a great negotiator include the following:

  1. Preparation and planning skills (as General Dwight Eisenhower said: “Plans are worthless but planning is everything.”).
  2. Subject matter knowledge;
  3. Cool cognitive skills – the ability to think clearly under pressure when dealing with uncertainty;
  4. Great communication skills – listening and talking;
  5. Good judgment and the ability to be decisive in key moments;
  6. Hard work, patience, persistence and stamina;
  7. Integrity and the ability to build good relationships (building rapport);
  8. The ability to tolerate disagreement and confrontation;
  9. Working with ambiguity and paradox;
  10. The ability to let situations evolve without the need to control them;

Of these characteristics mindfulness is the most valuable to the negotiator and supports all the others. Mindfulness can be defined as:

The practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.

There is a saying in the military: “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy.” The same is true of negotiation. As Professor Michael Wheeler states in his book “The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World”:

“Whoever sits across the table from you is likely to be as determined, as smart, and as unpredictable as you are. You can’t dictate their agendas, attitudes or actions any more than you would let them dictate yours.”

Great negotiators will improvise in much the same way as a great jazz musician.

A lot of negotiators are successful because they go into each new negotiation situation with a complete presence of mind (mindfulness). This allows them to respond to and work with whatever is presenting itself in the moment rather than trying to bend the situation in front of them to their own will or a predetermined outcome. As Lakhdar Brahimi (UN Negotiator) has stated:

“Keep an open mind and be ready to change and adapt to the situation. Don’t ask reality to conform to your blueprint, but transform your blueprint to adapt to reality.”

Being emotionally grounded is essential to negotiation success. To stay emotionally centred negotiators need to be able to sit comfortably with the paradox of seemingly contradictory feelings, for example, being simultaneously calm and alert. If you work in a state of mindfulness then you can approach negotiation as an ongoing process of discovery: not just about the situation and the other party but, ultimately, even yourself.

Wheeler refers in his book to all negotiations being chaotic –they are fluid and not wholly predictable. Great negotiators understand and embrace this reality. This allows them to be agile, to side step problems and to seize opportunities when conditions change – as they frequently will.  This may come more naturally to some people, but it is a skill that can be learned and honed with practise.

Paul Sills is a barrister with over 20 years’ experience working in global litigation markets. Paul is also an accomplished business leader, having been involved in a diverse range of companies (as CEO or director) including the marine industry, global health care and international freight. Paul has been engaged in mediations both as a legal advisor and as a client since 1995 and as a mediator since 2010. These have included multi-parties and complex issues surrounding Treaty of Waitangi settlements, aviation disasters, leaky homes, construction and receiverships. With a unique understanding of the challenges businesses and individuals face and drawing on his years of commercial and legal experience, Paul provides timely and cost-effective solutions for his clients. Paul’s appointments include Associate Member of AMINZ, a member of the panel of mediators for the Marine Industry Association, Triathlon NZ Age Group Adjudicator for 2015 and 2016 and a member of the panel of mediators for the New Zealand Law Society. Paul is approved to assist with the Society’s Early Resolution Service, as well as standard track mediations. As a barrister Paul maintains both an active commercial litigation practice and a comprehensive mediation practice. Contact Paul at paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz or connect via Twitter Twitter or LinkedIn LinkedIn

For more information visit Paul’s website https://paulsills.co.nz/