Lean In to the Messiness and Ugliness in Your Negotiations

Do you lean in to your negotiations? What does that mean to you? 

In the wake of Sheryl Sandberg’s ground-breaking book, Lean In, many people misconstrued the message, believing Sandberg was advocating that women need to get tougher and bring their bad-ass self to the table to be taken seriously. I hope that’s not the message you took away. It’s been my mission these last many years to reframe how we look at power, success, and negotiation … in business and in life.

It’s precisely that ‘toughness carries the day’ mindset that I’m determined to flip. I encourage a new approach, where we choose collaboration over competition, seeking to truly understand and meet the needs of the other party to find best possible outcomes.

I invite you to lean in. But not from a place of challenge or exerting power over the other party. Instead, lean in to the messiness. Lean in to the human ugliness that may come up. Use it to find the path to unearth power with the other party. To do that we need to understand … the good, the bad and the ugly.

Most people lean back when negotiations get messy. When the other party acts out or gets angry, or hurt, or reactive, we step back. In trying to play safe, we build in what we believe to be safeguards to minimize risk to ourselves. Yet these strategies or approaches undermine our ability to get best outcomes. Far from keeping us safe, they act as saboteurs.

Many resources on negotiation suggest that emotion has no place in negotiations. This ignores a fundamental reality. Humans are emotional beings. For too long, we’ve ignored this fact in studying best practices for negotiation. Effective negotiations are based, in part, on relationship. High EQ is a critical skill for relationship-building and hence, for effective bargaining.

Yet when emotions rear up in negotiations, we usually back away, finding them messy and uncomfortable to deal with. As a result, many deals go sideways and fail when a resolution was possible if we’d just dig in to understand where the emotion is coming from and what block(s) may be standing in the way of your perfect deal. 

What if, instead of backing away, you leaned in? If you got curious? If you committed to uncover the unmet needs that caused the eruption you faced? What if you resolved to diagnose the problem with fascination, compassion, and openness? If you want to figure out what the problem is so you can resolve it, you need to lean in to examine it more carefully. It’s not the time to retreat or turtle.

Think of an I.T. expert. When a computer acts up, spewing out info it shouldn’t, or freezing up, or shutting down, the expert doesn’t run away, but instead leans in, using that messy, annoying, confounding stuff as valuable information to make a diagnosis. I invite you to try the same in your negotiations.

When those pesky emotions show up, don’t back away, but lean in to the perceived problem to collect the necessary intel to identify and fix the problem. Those high emotions often signal the heart of the real fears or needs of the other party. Knowing that allows you to come up with better outcomes and get better buy-in.

Deal with these messy issues quickly where possible. Like a red wine spill on a white carpet, if you leave it too long the stain will be permanent, whereas if you act fast and blot followed by a quick application of dish detergent and vinegar you can clean up the mess and carry on with the party.

We’re taught to hold our cards close to our chest. We worry that if we’re vulnerable, we’ll be seen as weak, and others will take advantage of us. In my experience the opposite is true.

That approach creates a wall between the parties – a gap or space that’s tough to bridge. It doesn’t lead to the transparency and trust necessary for creative solutions.

Be willing to be vulnerable and to explore vulnerability of the other party. While outbursts may not seem like vulnerability in the moment, they can be gorgeous opportunities to see behind the Wizard’s curtain. I invite you to seize those opportunities. You may just find a heart, a brain, or unexpected courage to close the deal in unanticipated and gratifying ways.


Are you looking to up level your negotiation skills?

Please enjoy my TEDx Ocala talk
- Rise of the Feminine Voice as the Key to Our Future-  

rise of the feminine voice cindy watson tedx ocala

Click to play


Build trust, creative solutions, messiness, transparency, trust, ugliness, vulnerability

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