Who’s your negotiation hero?

Students often ask me to name a negotiation hero—the one person who most epitomizes the lessons taught in class. Presumably they expect me to identify a corporate titan like Jack Welch, a politician like our Negotiator-in-Chief, or even a high-powered sporting agent like Scott Boras.

So imagine their consternation when I politely decline to answer. “But why?” they ask, figuring I just took the world’s biggest cop-out.

I didn’t. I answered that way for a reason, and the reason cuts to the heart of the difference between real negotiation and mythical negotiation, an understanding of which can make life substantially more negotiable. That being the case, let me take this opportunity to share the reason for my refusal. I never name a negotiation hero because:

  1. Real negotiation heroes don’t publicize their accomplishments. Unlike mythical negotiators, who love to broadcast their conquests, real negotiation heroes generally hold their victories close to the vest—perhaps out of humility or perhaps to avoid alerting their future counterparts. People who keep their accomplishments guarded are not particularly easy to identify.
  2. Real negotiation heroes don’t reveal themselves in huge deals. Since most of the negotiations we encounter on a daily basis concern mundane challenges—dishes, discounts, difficulties at work—real negotiation heroes show their stuff in subtle ways. They might do the huge deal occasionally, but they more often solve the simple problem gracefully. Navigating daily life with finesse is unlikely to show up in the newspaper.
  3. Real negotiation heroes look nothing like mythical negotiators. Whereas mythical negotiators are aggressive jerks who pound the table until the other side utterly caves to their egregious monetary demands, real negotiation heroes tend to be quiet, analytical problem-solvers who devise creative, value-creating solutions to complex problems. Hardly the stuff of the evening news.
  4. Real negotiation heroes make the people around them feel that way. You won’t even know a negotiation hero when you talk to one. Instead, you’ll walk away from the conversation feeling like a negotiation hero yourself. Real negotiation heroes know how to create and spread the value around, leaving everyone feeling heroic rather than overawed by the true hero. If we can’t spot the negotiation heroes across the table, how can we spot them from afar?
  5. Real negotiation heroes may not realize it themselves. Real negotiation heroes probably spend less time reflecting on their own prowess and more time reflecting on the problems all around them. They may feel satisfied after working through a conflict or surmounting a challenge, but they’ll probably move on to the next conflict or challenge quickly rather than firing off a self-congratulatory tweet. If we can’t spot the negotiation heroes inside ourselves…

In sum, real negotiation heroes are nearly impossible to detect—and nothing like the people in our minds. The upside? Those of us who consider ourselves hapless at the bargaining table may actually find something heroic down deep.