Negotiation. It Might Not Be What You Think.

November 10, 2021


7 minute read


by Kara Goldin

Robben Island, South Africa.

For decades, it was home to one of the most brutal, unforgiving prisons – a place that political prisoners were shipped off to and from which they rarely returned.

Nelson Mandela arrived there in June of 1964, and rather than accept his sentence of life imprisonment, he began a lengthy and calculated negotiation to not only free himself, but end Apartheid in his country.

Many have recognized Mandela as the greatest negotiator of the 20th century, deliberately deploying the tools of dialogue, leverage, and compromise in order to transform the fates of millions. His negotiation style and tactics have been carefully studied, offering insight into thinking strategically in order to achieve one’s ultimate goals. Even when it seems that one has little leverage in a negotiation process.

No alt text provided for this image

I’ve thought about some of the markings of a successful negotiator like Nelson Mandela and how certain techniques can be applied to any situation. Preparation. Assessing your strengths and weaknesses in the situation and figuring out what might happen if the negotiation doesn’t go the way you want. Understanding what the other side wants out of the situation too. And thinking about the various options they could develop too. Never ever go into a negotiation without a grasp of all your alternative scenarios. 

Nelson Mandela envisioned two futures for his country. One very dark one in which unrest and internal strife grew under the grips of Apartheid. And another where freedom and justice prevailed in a new social order. With steely perseverance, he was able to convince South African authorities that the alternative scenarios to a negotiated agreement were not in any of their interests. He was willing to walk away from the table several times. Eventually his persistence and persuasion paid off, culminating with the election of him as President.  

Understanding the position of the person or party that you are negotiating with is essential. Figuring out ahead of time if the goals for the outcome are the same or different from yours. When speaking with decision-makers to get our product Hint on the shelves of stores, or when trying to get more space on the shelf too, my team is constantly thinking about what the goals are for the buyers that are negotiating with. What is their goal? What will make them look good? And finally, being confident to share that this decision will be a good one.

No alt text provided for this image

Have you ever negotiated with someone who seems to care? Has empathy. And really seems like he wants to understand what you want to gain from the situation. Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss is an expert at this, a strategy he calls tactical empathy. When brokering a deal, he suggests that using tactical empathy removes the often difficult, competitive aspect of a negotiation. And oftentimes, that helps both parties get aligned.   

Back in 2008, while we weren’t negotiating the release of hostages, we were negotiating with some of our retail partners who were suggesting that they would be taking some pretty drastic measures that we weren’t thrilled about — removing us from store shelves.  Remember this was at a time too when the financial markets were melting down and many were fearing the worst about the economy and consumer spending. We were fielding calls every day from grocery buyers who wanted us to agree to BOGO pricing — that’s buy-one-get-one free – in exchange for keeping our product Hint on their store shelves. The economics of this deal definitely didn’t make sense for us, and many of the ones who were threatening this deal immediately backed off.  

But there is always one. And one very important retail partner who was determined to stand their ground to maximize their economics even though this was completely unsustainable for our business. How did we solve this potential catastrophe? Empathy was the key to solving this problem.

No alt text provided for this image

We told them that we couldn’t agree to that kind of discounting, and we were willing to walk away. We stood our ground, knew what the possibilities were, and in the end, we finally agreed to maintain our existing pricing. 

Stephynie Malik, a top crisis management expert, talked about bringing compassion to the negotiation table when she was on my podcast The Kara Goldin Show. Her work at numerous companies over the years to untangle sticky situations and ensure that the communication to the media is handled the right way is key to getting a company or an individual out of crisis mode. Malik shared that when people are negotiating these types of situations, many times they opt for hardball tactics. And while she has seen that strategy work, in most instances, the potential outcome that one thought they were getting usually falls apart. Bringing empathy upfront to the negotiation all parties are heard and acknowledged. And hopefully the resulting deal will be one that both parties feel a bit better about.  

No alt text provided for this image

When Nelson Mandela asked why he was able to negotiate what he did to end Apartheid and by all means succeed against the longest of odds, he had this to say: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, and one’s feet moving forward.” 

Whether or not you are an optimist. And regardless of whether or not you are brokering a peace treaty or hammering out a business deal, remember that as difficult as today may look, negotiations are what will move the situation forward. And allow new opportunities to arise too. 

In your next negotiation, keep your head pointing towards the sun and allow progress to be made. Like a true optimist.  



Starting a Company – and Why Not Having ALL The Answers Is Better

Order Now

Get Kara’s Insights In Your Inbox