Slow it down—the importance of patience in negotiations

From the June 2019 print edition

Patience is one of the most important skills to develop if we want to become great negotiators. Great negotiations require patience. Patience, not only with the process, but with both the counter party and ourselves. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve felt our patience dwindling when a deal wasn’t moving as fast as we expected. The level of frustration that builds can sometimes be so overwhelming that we let that frustration bubble to the surface, and we pop, letting our frustration erupt like Mt. Vesuvius.

Crisis negotiators don’t have the luxury of getting frustrated and angry with someone who wants to take their own lives or harm someone else. They learn and develop what Chris Voss (Former chief hostage negotiator with the FBI and author of Never Split the Difference) would call, tactical empathy. That tactical empathy requires a unique situational awareness and a lot of patience.

Jack Cambria, former New York City Police hostage negotiator, is the embodiment of patience and understanding. In a recent conversation I had with Jack, he said “We have to have staying power and develop a rapport. And if we can develop that, it will lead to trust, in time. And there is a process. And that process is allowing people the time to work through their emotions and that takes time.”

Jack’s career as a crisis negotiator has forced him to develop incredible patience. You can hear it in his voice when he talks. His calm, soothing tone smooths out any and all impatience and frustration. His evenly paced sentences and understanding moments of silence are a result of an entire career of negotiating intense situations of crisis.

Patience slows the process to the point where, as Jack says, everyone has time to work through their emotions and their process. This includes us. Our patience allows us time to manage our emotions and expectations.

You may say, ‘That’s great Mark, but I’m not a crisis negotiator. How do I develop that same smooth patience that Jack has?’ Much of improving on anything is taking the first step to recognize that there is a problem and where that problem stems from. For most of us, our impatience stems from not managing our own expectations. We lose patience because ‘someone else isn’t getting it’ or ‘someone else is taking too long’, or ‘someone else is ruining the deal with their ridiculous demands.’
It always seems to be someone else’s fault.

Reality check: maybe it’s us? Maybe our expectations of the other person and how they should behave are out of whack. Kurt Dahl, an entertainment lawyer, and guest on the Negotiations Ninja Podcast, dropped some wisdom that still sticks with me. He said, “You can change the nature of the negotiation, but you can’t change the nature of the person you’re negotiating with.” Their nature is what it is and, we have to deal with it within the confines of the deal that we’re presented. And that means that we must have patience.

The activity that I can most attribute to helping me diagnose impatience is the habit of writing after-action reviews (also called post-mortems) following negotiations to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go well and what I need to work on for next time. Regular use of this tool helps to develop our self-awareness and gives us the opportunity to develop actionable items in our negotiation skillset to work on.

The risk of not being patient is that we let our emotions take control of the negotiation and we rush through discussions, overlooking areas where we could develop and extract value. Have you ever looked back on a deal and thought, “Shoot, I should have seen that coming.”? I know I have. That’s often a function of rushing to deal completion. Impatience leads to frustration and frustration leads to lost opportunities and impasses. Impatience is a deal killer.

Great negotiators use patience like a weapon and they’re able to wait out the other side’s frustration, timelines, anger and forceful negotiation techniques. This patience allows the other party to vent and when there’s nothing left to be angry or frustrated about, they magically become ready to talk about how to make a deal work.

Patience is difficult. Believe me, I get it. Especially when you have a deal that is constrained by a time limit imposed by a leader or a contract expiry. Truthfully, patience is the single biggest thing in negotiation that I have difficulty with. I am not naturally a patient person and it takes considerable effort and focus for me to force myself to be patient.

Mark Raffan is president of Negotiations Ninja Inc.

It’s taken me years of practice to develop situational awareness enough for me to recognize when I’m being impatient and when I need to force myself to slow it down. I still get flustered and frustrated when I feel as though something, or someone, isn’t moving fast enough. But that’s why I utilize after action reviews. It’s so that I stay sharp and stay on track with my negotiation development. And like everything in negotiation, there is no silver bullet that makes this immediately easier. It takes practice and it takes discipline. If you’re willing to practice patience, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a great negotiator.