“You think that was a negotiation? Ha, I’ll tell you about a negotiation!”
A friend of mine, Wes, works at an investment bank and heads up a team that runs 9- or 10-figure property deals across Europe. A few years back, he came out of a meeting discussing a very large investment in Georgia and commented to his colleague about the negotiation that had just happened.
To which he got the reply in the first line above.
Brutal civil war
Picture the scene, this is Georgia, the wild-west of post-Soviet Europe. Kalashnikovs are commonplace. It borders Chechnya and it has its own brutal civil wars in which South Ossetia and Abkhazia are fighting for independence, with thousands massacred and hundreds of thousands displaced.
“My wife is pregnant and her waters break early, I’m driving as fast as I can to get her to hospital. The thing is, we’ve been out of town for a few days and there isn’t a hospital for miles, we need to get to Tbilisi.
“We come across a roadblock and they won’t let us through. I tell them about my wife and they shake their heads. I take some money out of my pocket but they don’t take it. They mean it, they won’t let us through. I have $100 in my wallet, normally plenty plenty for a roadblock like this but they don’t take it.
“The civil war is serious now and there have been a lot of bombs in the capital. These guys, they’re only kids but some of them have been drinking and they’ve got more weapons than me and they really aren’t letting us through.
“I look over at my wife. She’s brave, doing a brilliant job, but she’s in pain and she’s worried. This is my wife, you understand. This is our child. This is my whole life.
“I get out of the car, I find the guy in charge, we have a chat.
“He lets us through. Now, that was a negotiation.”
“What did you say to him?”, says Wes.
You have a very beautiful wife, sir, how much?
There are negotiations and there are negotiations. I’ve had a few of the more edgy type myself, in fact.
One I remember in Algeria and it was the good old haggle, “You have a very beautiful wife, sir, I trade her for three camels?”. We’ve all had it, it’s the classic line for the tourists, but this time it was different.
I was young and travelling with my friend, Lucy, through the Sahara, kind of as you do. Oh, the car was a Morris Minor…travelling through the Sahara in a Morris Minor, as you do. It had broken down twice between Bristol and London but here it was still rolling along, about 1000 miles into the middle of nowhere, deepest Africa.
And then it broke down for the last last time. This time slap bang in the middle of the Sahara, miles from anywhere, in a military zone where we weren’t allowed to break down. Some soldiers came over to investigate. They seemed nice enough. We chatted, we tried to patch up the car, we had some food together.
And then about 9pm, Lucy was tired and went off to the tent to sleep. They looked disappointed, so I stayed up to chat. But the conversation changed.
“How much for Lucy?”
I laughed and said 3 camels. They didn’t laugh back, they were serious. I said, “No, no, not going to happen”, they didn’t take my no as an answer.
These were two old gnarled soldiers, highly trained, war-scarred, Algeria was currently in between two very bloody civil wars. They had guns. We were 200 miles from the nearest town in any direction.
I spent the next two hours arguing with them, defending Lucy, sometimes laughing, sometimes getting angry, sometimes trying to change the conversation.
At one point, I checked in on her, hoping she was fast asleep. This whole conversation had been conducted in French, which she didn’t speak. I found her in the tent, shaking, with a spade and a hammer next to her. She’d understood every single word.
You won’t like me when I’m angry
They really could have done whatever they wanted. I tried everything but I wasn’t in a good bargaining position. Eventually I got angry with them, very angry.
I was young back then and I was a nice kid. I didn’t do angry that well. But I lost it. I stood up and ranted at them, how they should be ashamed of themselves, how they were letting down their country, their family, themselves. Then I stormed off into the tent.
And wondered what on earth was going to happen next.
There was silence for a while. Then I heard them talking to each other quietly in Arabic. Then there was movement, they were getting up. Then walking. I took hold of the spade, Lucy had the hammer. And slowly the sound of the movement got quieter as they walked further away.
Now, that was a negotiation.
It’s not life or death
Going back to Georgia and the roadblock – what did he say? What did he do that worked where $100, Georgian riches, had failed?
He never told my friend so we’ll never know. Maybe he smiled, maybe he paid them off, maybe he threatened them, maybe he knew their boss, maybe he knew their father.
Negotiations are unpredictable. Be nice to them, it might work, it might not. Get angry, it might work, it might not. Try this little trick out, it might work, it might not.
It’s just sometimes the consequences are greater than others.
So the next time you ask your boss for a pay-rise or you’re negotiating with that key strategic customer, don’t get too spooked about it. It’s not that important. It’s not life or death.
You see, when we’re spooked, we freeze and we don’t have that looseness that allows us to try out a different idea. And who knows, it might be that different idea that is the one that gets you your deal.
There are negotiations and there are negotiations – best of luck in yours!