Mindful dialogue

May 21, 2018

Negotiations are a key strategic skill for leaders. Although it is such an important skill, a number of myths exist about what makes a good negotiator. For example, people believe that good negotiators are aggressive and often get good deals at the expense of others. This is a rather limited view of how negotiations work in organizations. While being able to get a deal at others’ expense might seem to lead to short-term wins, often leaders need to generate long-term value. This requires skills that often depart from the view of negotiations that people often hold.

The key framework that helps us understand how negotiators can create value comes from a model in the literature on conflict—the Dual-Concern Model proposed by Morton Deutsch in the 1970s.

It proposes that people simultaneously hold two concerns in negotiation situations—a concern for self and a concern for other.


 People use the word—‘win-win’ to describe how they would like to approach negotiations. Win-win comes from a simultaneous concern for self and the other. The key insight is in order to get to win-win outcomes, negotiators need to hold seemingly competing goals—concern for self and concern for other. Yet, these goals are often present simultaneously and this tension is referred to as the ‘negotiator’s dilemma’.

negotiator’s dilemma

Resolving this dilemma involves the ability of negotiators to recognize and make tradeoffs between ‘value-claiming’ strategies (strategies that focus on creating value for the self), and ‘value-creating’ strategies (those that create value for both parties). A good analogy that describes this dilemma is to use the metaphor of baking a cake.

Imagine that information about one’s needs, priorities, preferences, and goals are like the flour that bakes a cake. The more information you share with your counterpart, the larger is the cake you can bake. However, if your counterpart does not reciprocate and holds information back, then you will bake a smaller cake and get a smaller share as you have shared more relative to the other side. Thus, in order to achieve win-win outcomes, you often need two mature negotiators who are both willing to work with each other to achieve the best possible result. Win-win is not generosity, nor is it compromise. It requires two negotiators to be unrelenting and unwilling to give up, while simultaneously holding a high concern for self and other.

This description tells us why it is often rare that we see win-win deals in negotiations. Yet, research shows that these skills can be [imparted through training] and cultivated systematically. My own research with colleagues in Singapore has shown that mindfulness—the ability to remain in the present moment—can often be helpful in negotiations. In the sections that follow, I will outline why mindfulness can be beneficial to both value claiming and value creation. I also will outline some steps that can be taken to incorporate mindfulness in their preparation for negotiations.

mindfulness: what is it?

There has been an explosion of research on mindfulness and how it can be beneficial in different domains. For example, my own work with my collaborators has shown that mindfulness can reduce emotional exhaustion at work and lead to greater performance.

So what exactly is mindfulness? You may have come across this word a number of times; I use it to describe a state of presence in which a person is able to remain in the moment, without getting caught up in thoughts about the past or plans about the future.

While this can involve meditation or a breathing practice as a means to cultivate it, it can also happen that people are naturally more or less mindful as a disposition. My work has shown that the effects of mindfulness, whether cultivated or naturally present, are often similar.

mindfulness and claiming value

In a series of studies that my collaborator—Jochen Reb, Singapore Management University—and I did on how mindfulness impacts value claiming in negotiations, we found that more mindful negotiators get better outcomes than their counterparts when the negotiation simply involves dividing a pie. One must note that these negotiations often do not have a win-win possibility as one’s gain is directly another’s loss. Many situations in life involve value claiming. For example, if you are on a holiday in Bangkok and you want to get the best deal on souvenirs, then there is no real possibility for win-win if you are just buying one piece. In such situations, being mindful can help.

The key reason why we think mindfulness matters in value claiming is that it focuses the attention of the negotiator on the task at hand. This allows them to focus on the verbal and non-verbal cues of what is unfolding. In addition, negotiators who are mindful can also manage their emotions better. This results in obtaining better deals compared to their counterpart.

mindfulness and win-win outcomes

As I mentioned earlier, creating win-win often requires people to simultaneously hold a high concern for self and a high concern for other. Studies have shown that there are two key factors that lead to a greater likelihood of obtaining win-win outcomes—empathy for the counterpart and an unwillingness to give up trying to find a win-win solution. Let us examine how mindfulness affects both these processes.

A number of studies have demonstrated that mindfulness increases empathy for others. So, mindful negotiators are able to understand their counterparts and what their priorities, goals and needs are. This by itself is not sufficient; what both parties need to have is also an unwillingness to compromise too quickly.

In my years of teaching negotiations, it often comes as a surprise to people that win-win is not compromise or meeting in the middle at 50-50. Win-win or value creation means that the mere fact that we came together to negotiate allows us to expand the size of the pie. It is often illustrative at this point to share the story of the two sisters who walk into a room and find an orange on the table. They end up cutting it in half. This often sounds like the fairest way to make the deal. Yet, one sister eats the pulp of the orange and the other makes marmalade with the peel. If they both had shared and talked about the orange, they could have had the whole orange. Cutting the orange in half is a compromise and this is often what negotiators do and mistakenly assume that it is win-win.

The ability to discover these hidden tradeoffs requires that negotiators be resistant to yielding too quickly and that they manage their energy. Mindfulness helps in this aspect. Participants who are a part of a mindfulness program often report feeling an increase in energy and vitality. Thus, mindfulness can help negotiators stay the course in order to discover hidden value in negotiations. The key point to note here is that it requires both negotiators to have this willingness to explore. Thus, not only do you have to be mindful, but also create conditions where the other party can feel the same as well. This is often not how the process of negotiation is viewed. I have heard numerous anecdotes of negotiators putting their counterparts in difficult and uncomfortable situations in order to extract value. This kind of thinking can hurt value creation over the long run.

mindful preparation

In order to improve your negotiation skills, besides learning the strategies and tactics to claim and create value, I would recommend a short, simple practice before any negotiation. This not only enhances your preparation but also creates a sense of well-being. Here is a quick recommendation of how you can put this into practice:

  • Bring your attention and awareness to the seat you are sitting on and feel your feet on the ground connecting to your body to the elements that hold you.
  • Take a few deliberate breaths focusing on inhalation and exhalation.
  • There is no need to close your eyes as this might not be normative in the situation.
  • Remind yourself of what your goals are in the negotiation.
  • Bring to mind your alternatives—what will you do if you do not make a deal with this counterpart?
  • Know when to politely walk away if you do not meet your goals, or if the alternatives are better than what your counterpart can offer. 