Becoming a Complete Negotiator by Gerard I. Nierenberg

Negotiation shares several characteristics with other art forms:

  • No one is born an artist
  • An inherent talent may decide the direction a person takes, but mastery of the subject can come only after sufficient training and practice;
  • During these stages the practitioner will rise through various levels before he reaches mastery.


Adam, Ben and Carol operate competing businesses. Each has different negotiating skills. Adam works very hard at persuading, convincing and motivating the customers. Ben works just as hard at offering things that would satisfy normal needs. Carol develops an understanding of the customers’ problems and offers solutions. With whom would you rather deal?

Each of these three business people have developed varying degrees of skill at negotiation. Adam is a novice. Ben is a competent negotiator, while Carol is a complete negotiator. How do they differ?

The Art of Negotiating® has at least three major levels:
  • First there is the novice negotiator,
  • then the competent negotiator,
  • and finally the complete negotiator.

Every human being starts from birth as a novice negotiator. No matter what our life preferences, we are compelled to negotiate for them. It is as inevitable as the sucking instinct with which we are born. However, at some period in development, many people make a conscious attempt to deal with negotiation thoughtfully.

As novices they learn the vocabulary of negotiating and attempt to understand its subject matter. They may even make stilted attempts to change their negotiating appearance and mannerisms to create a more “appropriate” image. The result? In all too many cases, in negotiations with more experienced people, the novice has a long and hard time concluding the negotiation. He or she may be subjected to unfair, even drastic, demands or barely concealed hostility or contempt. This is because a more experienced negotiator feels, fairly or not, that the novice is at best inexperienced and at worst stupid.

One common reason is that the novice feels that having mastered the vocabulary and some knowledge of say, real estate, he or she is ready to negotiate a real-estate deal. Not so. There are two totally different vocabularies and information systems involved in negotiating and real estate. Constructive communication between the opposers in the deal and a synergistic relation becomes unlikely. Neither side is able to achieve a negotiation conclusion where both sides benefit.

Novices are restricted by fears, especially that they will at best be surprised, at worst ambushed. By that fact alone, any alternative offered by the other side must be considered hazardous. Because the opposing side is regarded as an enemy, he or she is seen as belligerent and aggressive, intimidating or manipulating. Any attempt to gain the opposer’s confidence seems to be met with suspicion. The novice is reluctant to offer alternatives under the assumption that if they haven’t been considered prior to the negotiation, they can’t be good.

Novices are without ability to see through and anticipate conclusions of transactions. They do not understand the use of alternatives to reduce deadlock. Novices, in attempting to create a positive negotiating climate, may even try to use a truthful disclosure and tell what they would settle for; but since they appear incompetent, the more experienced negotiator thinks they are lying or do not know what they are saying. They are not listened to nor taken seriously. Their opposer will not even attempt to evaluate what they are saying.

Experience in negotiation alone does not make one competent. The competent negotiators’ first consideration is how to use all of their skills to neutralize the fears of the inexperienced. The competent are able to leave an impression with the novice that they are fit, proper, able and adequate. Their manners are composed, understanding, self-controlled and realistic. They are easily recognized as being experienced. Their verbal and nonverbal communications confirm the initial impression they create. They are truthful, reliable and have respect for the other person’s point of view. They know the vocabulary, are award of the issues, know how to deal with them, and how to resolve them so that both sides benefit. They know how to prepare for negotiation, how to set a climate (the negotiation environment); how to deal with limits, strategies and tactics; how to do their homework; how to “read” gestures and listen to Meta-Talk; how to organize their material; and, in general, how to do all of these things effectively.

A music critic has said that Hayden first taught Mozart how to write string quartets; Mozart then taught Hayden how string quartets should be written. This ability to surpass instruction is what differentiates the competent from the complete artist. (It takes nothing away from Hayden’s greatness to say this. Hayden, himself, after hearing the first Mozart quartets called him the greatest composer then living.) In addition to being fit, proper, able and adequate, the complete negotiator not only possesses all the necessary instructed qualities of a negotiator, but has a personal philosophy with an ethical concern; one that can bring a negotiation that is completely satisfactory to both sides to a close.

Negotiators’ greatness lies in their selection of such a philosophy. There is, however, no one way. Aristotle’s ethical concern is revealed in Rhetoric, (which was a study of the negotiation process of his day). He states, “. . . man has a sufficient natural instinct for what is true and usually does arrive at the truth. Hence the man who makes a good guess at truth is likely to make a good guess at probabilities,” Aristotle also dealt with ethical considerations when he wrote, “Rhetoric is useful because things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites. . . .” He reaffirms his beliefs when he states, “. . . things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe.”

In the more than 2300 years since Aristotle lived, perceptions have changed and grown. Although there are still many who play a win/lose game (the essence of Greek tragedy), the complete negotiator realizes that the tragic flaw of Greek heroes – hubris (overweening pride, arrogance) – has no place in the intricate, interpersonal relationships of today.

In Aristotle’s time and for centuries afterward, a person’s role in society was rigidly defined according to rank. The ambitious were forced to play a win/lose game – often with lethal results to their rivals or themselves. Now every facet of society has certain strengths they will not bargain away without a recompensing reward. Anyone may have to negotiate with businessmen or women, bureaucrats, professionals, salesmen, terrorists, muggers, petty thieves – the whole gamut of people in the world today. Can you hold out for an unconditional surrender? You may lose more than you can afford. Your philosophy should facilitate negotiation.