Negotiation Mastery Blog

Top Negotiator Wins Britain’s Got Talent

So we all watched the final of Britain’s Got Talent last night and wasn’t it heartwarming to see Ashleigh and Pudsey win. In case you haven’t seen it yet, they did a great dance act to the Mission Impossible theme – not that remarkable, I guess, until you realise that Pudsey is a dog.

Quite an impressive dog actually. He danced a whole lot better than me, I can tell you.

Now, it occurred to me: what if you can get your negotiating counterparty to do tricks like Pudsey could? That would be cool! Get them to roll over on their tummy; get them to do pirouettes; get them to jump through hoops.

Seem preposterous? Well, let’s think about it. How did Ashleigh train Pudsey to dance so well? She used something called clicker-training, a technique that most people who have successfully trained their dogs (note, that word ‘successfully’) will know about. Actually, dolphin-trainers will know about it too and, indeed, most professional animal trainers will.

Clicker-training was invented by Karen Pryor and is broadly based on the principle of carrot and stick. In other words, you punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour. With dogs, you use choccy drops, with dolphins fish and so on. Except Pryor introduced a critical change to this. She found that punishing bad behaviour was actually counter-productive and it was more effective to simply ignore it.

That might sound counter-intuitive but she said it had such a positive impact on the relationship that the animal would invent new tricks just to please the trainer and to show off what it could do. And she found it was this fundamental change in the relationship that enabled animal and trainer to really do wonderful stuff together.

Well, to win Britain’s Got Talent.

Now, you don’t have to be an animal trainer to use this. If you’ve successfully (that word again) brought up a child, you’ll probably know the technique too, even if you hadn’t heard of the name. Because it works on children as well. Of course, there are limits to this approach. If your child is holding an axe above their head about to bring it down with full force on to your neighbours kid, that’s probably time for intervention and having a discussion about appropriate behaviour!

But overall it’s a very powerful approach for bringing up the little, erm, sweet things.

But negotiators? Will it work on them?

The answer is yes and no. And the distinction is mostly due to the amount of time you have with them. Because it isn’t a technique that works instantly. It’s not like Samantha from Bewitched wiggling her nose and suddenly they give you all their money (oh, if only!). Instead, it takes a bit of a while before they catch on (or, if they’re a dolphin, click).

So if you’re haggling in the marketplace, it probably won’t work too well. Or if it is a one-off negotiation of any kind. Or if it is a negotiation that is taking place at a distance or through intermediaries. In each of these instances, it is very hard to implement (though not necessarily impossible).

However, a lot of the negotiations we find ourselves in are ongoing. Negotiating with your team, negotiating with your boss, with the trade union, with your teenage child, with your partner. These are negotiations that are, effectively, continuous.

With these, you can transform the relationship, and with it your results, if you use clicker-training. Well, ok, not clicker-training per se, but Karen Pryor’s general approach of ignore the bad behaviour and reward the good. Of course, you’ll have to find the right reward: choccy drops might work, fish probably wouldn’t.

Again, its worth bearing in mind that the approach has limits, but give it a go and very soon you may find you can get the other person jumping through hoops and rolling over on their tummies.

You never know, you might win Britain’s Got Talent.