Negotiating Lessons ‘the Slap’ Can Teach Us

Everyone is talking about ‘the slap heard round the world’ (or ‘slapgate’ or whatever clever name the media is invoking at the moment). Will Smith’s epic slap of Chris Rock overshadowed the Oscars (and its winners) and became the talk of the town. It dominated news cycles worldwide. Surprising at a time when the Ukraine is fighting for its survival and when the post-pandemic world is facing one the most profound potential economic shifts of our time. Rather than focusing on the obvious negative messages, I’d like to take a moment to contemplate what lessons we can learn from the incident. As someone who believes that all of life is a negotiation, I’m going to focus on the negotiating lessons ‘the slap’ can teach us. 

Our First and Most Important Negotiation is With Ourselves

Our most important negotiation is the one we have with ourselves. This negotiation is a constant work in progress. We negotiate which stories we’ll buy into, what limiting beliefs and blocks we’ll tolerate (or not), how we’ll deal with our fears, who we want to be, how we show up, our sense of self … you get the idea. 

Between every stimulus and response there is a space. In that space you get to negotiate the meaning you’ll attach to the stimulus and how you choose to respond. In this case (as in all cases), Will Smith was faced with a stimulus – Chris Rock’s quip about Jada. He then had the space of a pause to negotiate what meaning he would attach to the comment and how he would choose to react. There was a wide range of options available. He chose poorly. As with most of our choices from these internal negotiations, there are likely to be significant consequences, both personally and professionally. 

Unless you are in imminent physical danger, take advantage of the pause when faced with a stimulus. Get intentional about your negotiations with yourself. Recognize that you have the power to choose your thoughts, the meanings you attach to events, who you show up as and how you respond. This power is a gift. Use it wisely.

How We Define Success in Negotiation: Masculine vs Feminine Energy

For some time, I’ve been advocating that we reframe how we look at negotiations and how we do it. We’ve been deeply conditioned to define ‘success’ based on a masculine, competitive, winner-take-all model. Note that when I speak of masculine and feminine, I’m not speaking to gender. We all have both masculine and feminine energy. But for too long, both men and women have eschewed their feminine in favour of a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to negotiation, believing that’s the only path to success. We talk about ‘sides’, ‘opponents’ and ‘adversaries’ as if negotiations were a UFC-like sporting event. 

Of the 6 key traits that make the most effective negotiators, assertiveness is the only one typically regarded as ‘masculine’ and I believe that’s because many mistakenly conflate assertive with aggressive. They are not the same thing. Assertiveness is simply coming from a place of confidence. That confidence comes from knowledge. Knowledge comes from preparation. ‘The slap’ represents the aggressive approach we’ve been conditioned to worship by the media and entertainment industry. It represents the worst form of misguided purported assertiveness. With Will Smith’s slap, there was none of the necessary preparation or thoughtfulness needed for best outcomes. 

Ironically, 5 of the 6 key skills necessary for superior negotiation are typically considered ‘feminine’. Rapport-building, empathy, flexibility, intuition, and trust are all critical skills that secure better outcomes, better relationships, and better buy-in. When we seek to put ourselves in the shoes of the other party and to truly understand and meet their needs, we position ourselves to find more creative solutions that better serve all. Imagine the possibilities for better outcomes in the Rock/Smith situation had these skills been brought to bear instead of the traditional so-called masculine approach. 

7 Deadly Sins of Negotiation

Similarly, the 7 Deadly Sins of Negotiation [ego, attachment, reactivity, not listening, jumping straight to business, lack of integrity, lack of clarity] are the kiss of death in a negotiation and sadly, are the current preferred (or learned) mode of negotiation. We can see how each of these deadly sins showed up and led to ‘the slap’. Imagine the possibilities open had Smith taken the requisite pause to reflect on what approaches would best serve for meaningful resolution and outcomes rather than being driven by ego, attachment, and reactivity with no opportunity for discussion to listen, obtain clarity and show up with integrity (in both senses of the word – i.e. including in alignment with our personal values) versus jumping straight to fight or flight business.  

If you want to dig deeper on the 7 Deadly Sins of Negotiating, check out my video series on the subject.


As humans we are notoriously terrible at perspective-taking. Our perceptions are often skewed. This lack of perspective causes conflict and decreases the chances of getting best outcomes in any negotiation. This is one of the reasons that empathy, rapport-building, and trust are so critical in negotiating. When we set aside our ego, and seek instead to get curious, to understand the other party’s position and needs, we improve our perspective and with it our ability to find creative win-win solutions. 

If you drew the number 6 on the floor and asked two people to stand on either side of it, one would see the number 6 and the other would see the number 9. They would both be correct based on their individual vantage (or perspective) points. Similarly, if you took a cylinder, shone a light at it and asked people to describe what they saw from its shadow, depending on their vantage point, some would see a rectangular shadow while others would see a circle. None would see a cylinder. One could make the argument that they were all correct based on their respective perspectives, or alternatively, they were all wrong because of their perspectives.

In ‘the slap’ incident, Chris Rock’s perspective was that he was making a joke. Will Smith’s perspective was that it was an insult. Both could be right based on their respective perspectives. That’s why open communication, dialogue and meaningful listening is so important in negotiations.  

Impact versus Intention

Tied to perspective, it’s valuable to consider intention vs impact in a negotiation. Chris Rock’s intention was to be funny and make people laugh – Will Smith and Jada included. Ironically, Will Smith did initially seem to see the humour – until he saw Jada’s offended reaction to the quip. The impact of the statement was not consistent with the intention behind it. 

Communication and perspective are critical. Learning to have the grace to accept another’s perception is a precious gift that can lead to unexpected opportunities in a negotiation. 

Need to Be Right

You may have heard the expressions, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” or “Do you want to be right, or do you want a relationship?” Needing to be right is one way ego shows up in a negotiation (whether in our personal or professional lives). Talking too much to convince the other party of the correctness or moral high ground of your position is another way. Ironically, it’s in letting go of the need to be right and/or to dominate the conversation that we open the space to garner valuable information that leads to best possible negotiated outcomes. In considering the outcomes you want in any given negotiation, I invite you to always consider the relationship outcome in addition to the substantive outcome of whatever you’re negotiating for. 

Recognizing the lessons we can learn in everyday life and/or unusual circumstances allows us to grow and be better positioned to step into the best version of ourselves. For a great review of the life-lessons (the good, the bad and the ugly) arising from ‘the slap’ incident, see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s insightful blogpost, Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing. The world would be a better place if we all strove to show up as our best selves. I hope these brief insights into some lessons we can take away from this unfortunate situation inspire you to take a step on that path



Art of Negotiation, dialogue, meaningful listening, Negotiation, Negotiation lessons, open communication, perspective, the slap

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