5 Things I Learned About Business Negotiating from Watching Movies
Test and Monitor | Posted May 07, 2012

The following is a guest post by Timothy Jeffcoat. Tim lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife and son and regularly writes for AZ Snakepit, the premier blog for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Tim got a college degree to prepare him for a life in business. Then he realized that he could have saved a lot of time in learning about deal-making by watching movies, instead.

We all have to negotiate at work. Sometimes the need to convince someone else to your point of view is over a salary increase. It might be with a clueless user over the software design you proposed, or the team lead who wants to incorporate a different code library. It might be just to get hired.

These scenarios are rarely easy to resolve, so knowing the basics of how to negotiate is an essential skill, whether you’re a new developer or an established software consultant.

You can read plenty of how-to books about the negotiation process, or learn about it in business classes like I did. But after several college semesters full of lectures, I realized I could have just watched the movies.

Yes: Movies demonstrate the lessons we need on how to effectively negotiate, from basic strategy all the way down to how to save your skin. Who needs to write term papers? Just sign up for a Netflix subscription.

1. Find a mutually beneficial solution.

One important underlying principle of negotiation is that its intent is to come to a mutually beneficial solution. You ultimately want to serve your own interests, otherwise why even take a position? But you also want to ensure that all sides feel as though the resolution is a fair outcome. Damaging long-term relationships for the lure of short-term gains rarely works out.

The classic film The Godfather illustrates this point perfectly. The mafia families, as depicted in the film, live in a largely balanced ecosystem. Every family has its business specialty, and the groups try not to upset the balance. The conflict of the film arrives when one family decides to upset the long-term balance for a short-term gain in the narcotics trade.

Of course, it cuts both ways in The Godfather. When the Corleones agree to meet the other families at the negotiation table to attempt to bring peace, the Godfather recognizes that he has to give up some things (namely his reluctance to narcotics) to receive what he wants (his son back from Sicily). Both sides have issues they want, and both sides give up things, resulting in a general long-term equilibrium.

2. Adapt to surroundings.

The Going Native trope is well established in the movies, and the recent film Avatar shows the importance of being flexible in creating solutions. Jake Sully goes through the ultimate transformation by virtually living with the Na’vi in an attempt to understand the group. The better you understand the people from whom you want to get something (whether it’s mining rights or permission to use a new Web server), the better job you can do at offering what will make the other party happy… in exchange for whatever you are ready to offer.

You can’t always dictate the terms in a negotiation, which is why being adaptive is important to success. It’s good to plan ahead and have a roadmap of what you’d like to accomplish, but it’s rare to execute perfectly.

You have to be prepared to be surprised. A client might have a last minute feature change, meaning that weeks of work are thrown out the window. Or you may learn that a potential employer wants you to travel 20% of the time. These are scenarios that require adaptation, and you can either dress up like a blue alien to make the most of it, or you can be that space marine who gets killed.

3. Don't share all your secrets.

Knowing the other side’s information is incredibly powerful, which is why you need to take care not to reveal too much.

This may seem counter-intuitive to finding a mutually beneficially solution, but nothing good ever comes from sharing all of your information in a negotiation. The idea is to slowly give up certain things for guarantees. If the other side knows exactly what you’re willing to do or take, then that gives them tremendous leverage.

Every romantic comedy illustrates this point. We’ve all seen it: the third act change of heart that’s only necessary because the two people each have some deal-breaking secret. Avoid the hassle of needing a third act change-of-heart by simply not revealing that secret!

In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hank’s character doesn’t want to reveal he owns the bookstore chain that is putting independents out of business. Things were going great with Meg Ryan’s character – until she realizes Tom Hanks is her hated competitor.

So maybe don’t lie about yourself, but do remember to look after yourself in regard to information. When you start giving up all of your positions, then the other side knows exactly how far you’re willing to go.

Turn the tables if you can. Find out how many of their “secrets” the client or hiring manager will share. Your potential client asks how much it would cost to build their website, but then balks at the cost. The more you know about their unspoken needs (and budget), the better you can offer a deal that sweetens your pockets, and makes them happy too.

4. Stand up for your desires.

Sometimes you have less power in the negotiation than you might prefer. For example, a powerful client wants you to change the application design at the last moment, without permitting you to charge them for the extra costs you incur.

Lando Calrissian knows how you feel. He thought he was just going to give up his former friends and potentially quash the Rebellion, and in return the Empire wouldn’t mess with his affairs in Cloud City. Of course, nothing is ever that simple when you’re dealing with the Sith, and Lando has to consistently roll back what he gets just to live.

You’ll probably never deal with someone who could Force choke you [Clearly, Tim has not had the same Web development clients we have.—Ed.]. But remember during the negotiation process what your desires are. Stand up for those goals. If you really believe that the changes to the product being requested won’t work, or worse, break the program, then you need to stand your ground. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself only ever giving, and getting little in return – except heartache.

5. Sometimes you need to move on.

Some negotiations just don’t have a favorable outcome. Not every movie has a happy ending, and not every business negotiation ends with everyone happy.

Have a back-up plan whenever possible, as it makes it easier to move on. Recognize that there are times when your own, or your firm’s, self-interest trump what the other party wants – or is willing to give up.

The most common situation involves pricing. You generally can’t accept clients whose pay (or payment schedule) won’t allow your firm to break even. Unless it means tremendous opportunities in the future, you need to be ready to walk away from those looking to take advantage of you.

Take it from Rose in Titanic. Sometimes you need to let go of your freezing lover and save yourself.

Of course, it isn’t so easy to just watch these scenes and instantly know how to apply them. If there’s one axiom of negotiations, it’s to ask questions, and then ask more. As you become more proficient, you’ll recognize more situations where someone does a particularly good, or particularly poor, job at handling a negotiation.

Much of what we do in life is transactional, so use these opportunities to build the base that you can later use in work. Watching movies is just one way to do it.

These five movies have helped me frame my negotiating strategy. Which movies have helped you incorporate negotiation techniques?

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