"Negotiation is about fostering relationships and showcasing strength without resorting to aggression or intimidation." - Remi Smolinski

Anna Cajot, Negotiation Conference Director, is in conversation with Remi Smolinski, negotiation professor at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management and a noted expert in negotiation strategies and performance.

Remi is renowned for leading The Negotiation Challenge, a prestigious international negotiation competition. He also leads a think tank dedicated to enhancing the understanding of negotiation as a crucial managerial skill, aiding business executives in improving their negotiation intelligence and honing their negotiation abilities.


Anna: Thank you for joining me, Remi. We are excited to have you at the Conference in October, where you will lead an interactive keynote session in the form of a debate. Could you give us a little preview of what your contribution will be about?

Remi: I would start off by saying that this is almost devastating for someone who has dealt with a subject of negotiation for so long to realize that we have no good way to determine whether someone is a good negotiator and how one can become a better negotiator because we are not able to measure what good means.

That was the starting point for our research project, during which we looked at various scientific contributions and papers that correlate observable behavior with superior negotiation outcomes. We put it all together and came up with a Negotiation Competency Model.

And in my talk in October, I'll discuss the details on how leaders can practically measure negotiation performance of negotiation teams, offering highly practical applications for all those who are interested in becoming better negotiators.


Anna: Since most of our attendees are leading negotiation teams, that would be beyond valuable for them. Remi, after years of running your negotiation competitions, what would you say differentiates a great negotiator from an excellent negotiator?

Remi: Let's focus on just a couple of dimensions today. Of course, I will discuss this topic at the Conference, where I think it might become a little bit clearer.

Good negotiators are those who can achieve their goals and objectives. This is why we negotiate in the first place: to create or claim value that emerges when two people start engaging in the negotiation process. However, there are also other dimensions and different negotiation settings that call for different skills or the different intensity of certain skills. So, let me explain what it means.

One of the dimensions on which greatness or excellence in negotiations differentiates from, being good or average is the ability to combine great substantive outcomes with building great relationships. Very often, many of us have a wrong perception that these two dimensions are mutually exclusive. It's either substance or relationship. However, what we see in our research and also in our competitions is that the best negotiators who ultimately end up winning our competitions are able to combine precisely these two aspects, meaning they can get great deals, while making the other party feel good about the deal, feel good about the relationship, wanting to deal with them in the future. So, that's one of the critical dimensions.

Furthermore, if we are interested in optimizing performance in complex deals, we should prioritize diversity. Great negotiation performance is not about choosing between assertiveness, empathy, value creation, or value claiming. As I mentioned earlier, it's about effectively combining those. However, it's incredibly challenging for an individual to excel in all these areas simultaneously. This is where teams, especially diverse teams, tend to outperform individuals in negotiations.

Of course, there are more, but I encourage everyone to join us in October, when I'll discuss that in more detail.


Anna: Since we've touched upon teams, how can leaders systematically capture and compare the performance of negotiators in their teams to determine their level of negotiation competence?

Remi: That's an excellent question, Anna. I wish many more people around the world were ready to ask themselves this question, because it's a difficult one. To answer it, we would have to put our teams to a test, and how could this test look like? Well, there are at least two or three options.

One of them is hiring an expert who witnesses negotiations done by your teams and systematically rates their performance based on structured criteria. However, this approach is challenging for many companies as it requires having an expert present during negotiations and providing him/her with the necessary materials.

The more feasible option is to expose teams to systematic environments where their skills can be measured and compared. This can be done through internal competitions designed to evaluate team and individual performances or participation in open competitions. These environments are controlled, allowing for precise measurement and comparison of negotiation skills.

In such settings, we can objectively assess and compare performances, e.g. by determining that negotiator A achieved a higher price as a seller compared to negotiator B in the same scenario. This becomes much more difficult in field studies where negotiations involve different partners, subjects, and contexts.

These controlled environments are increasingly valued by companies as they offer a dependable method to measure negotiation performance, going beyond mere outcomes. They provide a platform for teams to learn, improve, and enjoy the process of self-discovery in a competitive setting.


Anna: Throughout your years working with negotiation professionals, what are the key traits that correlate with high negotiation performance? Does being highly intuitive aid your negotiation performance?

Remi: We always reflect upon the winners of our competitions, and we look back at the results and search for common themes and patterns. And one of them is definitely diversity. When it comes to team negotiation, diverse teams create more comprehensive negotiation profile that includes the ability to claim value and the ability to listen, to look beyond, and to create value.

But when it comes to negotiating like a champion, let me offer an analogy. When I was younger, there was a detective character called Columbo, played by Peter Falk. He was unassuming, wore old clothes, and seemed forgetful, yet incredibly sharp and effective in his work.

The role of likability and a non-threatening appearance in negotiation cannot be overstated. It's about fostering relationships and showcasing strength without resorting to aggression or intimidation.

Master negotiators have mastered this delicate balance. They are adept at nurturing strong relationships while effectively and tactfully asserting their interests. This approach, which places a premium on rapport-building and mutual respect, is a cornerstone of successful negotiations.


Anna: What steps can we take to become great negotiators by enhancing our negotiation skills?

Remi: Building competencies starts with acquiring knowledge, but knowledge alone isn't sufficient to enhance competence. After attending seminars or lectures, individuals may feeling spired to take action rather than immediately becoming great negotiators.

Firstly, it's crucial to conduct a diagnosis: assessing strengths and weaknesses in a controlled environment using specific criteria and expert evaluation. This self-awareness is the first step towards mastery. The next crucial step involves repetition, which allows for reflection on outcomes and adjustments based on feedback.

Achieving mastery requires a continuous feedback loop between current skills and the initial diagnosis. For example, if we excel in value claiming but overlook opportunities for value creation, we should for instance focus more on active listening to identify such opportunities in subsequent negotiations. Mastery, like Ronaldo’s or Messi’s in soccer, hinges not just on talent but also on structured practice, feedback, and repetition.

Our aim is to provide structured environments that support executives and professionals in their journey towards negotiation mastery. These environments are designed to help them identify and address obstacles, refine their skills, and ultimately, become more effective negotiators.

Meet Remi in person at the N-Conference 2024: www.n-conference.com/conference/zurich


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