08/26/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

The First Rule in Negotiation Is "Don't Follow the Rules"

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The best negotiators are known for their ability to read an opponent and at all times be a step ahead. To do just that, theories have been developed on how to prepare, strategize and practice.

Body language and game-theory learning are encouraged over simply thinking. When following formulaic rules, the advantages of time and agility are lost; is it then possible to win in negotiations by not following the rules?

The blind spot of reading books

Negotiations include more strategies, theories and tactics than most people realize. Experience in the field has led me to research and continually consider various approaches, depending on occasion and environment. Although there are many concepts fitting to circumstances, there doesn't seem to be a guaranteed recipe to reach an objective, and furthermore, not all approaches suit everyone.

Books and training provide valuable, sometimes key information and techniques on strategy and influence. Major theories entangle positional vs principled negotiation, as brilliantly developed in the bestseller Getting to Yes by Robert Fischer and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Well known terms span from hard vs soft negotiators to exploiting the fight vs flight response. Ignoring this wealth of knowledge would be unwise and even dangerous, but it could prove equally dangerous to blindly follow it.

Good negotiators read people like books and they usually also read the books other negotiators do. Chances are they will be able to recognize the template you are using and therefore decipher your entire strategy. In essence, by faithfully following books and techniques, one becomes their own blind spot. By not having read the books however, one can't read others. Reaching the table then has a major weakness: negotiation illiteracy.

The art and science of negotiations

Who can afford such weakness when it is often said that negotiations is both a science and an art? Though science has more rules than art does, what people often fail to recognize is science breaks more rules to progress, and art develops more rules to establish its distinctiveness. Let's see what a great artist and a renowned scientist can teach us on playing (or not) by the rules.

Pablo Picasso, widely admired for his unique style, commented once, "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist." Imagine a negotiation where you don't understand the rules; you will probably be puzzled or even intimidated. Imagine another situation though where you have prepared diligently, developed a strategy, carefully implementing the tactics, but your opponent, knowing the same things, is constantly one step ahead and beating you with experience.

Albert Einstein, known for making challenging concepts plain, famously said, "You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else." Can what worked for "the theory of relativity" also work in business?

From theory to practice: 3 steps of knowledge development

  • First, one has to consider how theories in negotiations establish: concepts develop from observation of past experience with insight of future development.
  • Studying them provides visibility of what has worked or not worked well for others and helps understand actions, reactions, positions, motives, strategies and tactics.
  • The second step of studying is to learn, and this requires owning knowledge, by experiencing it to understand and assimilate it.
  • The third step goes from consuming knowledge to creating it. Using information and own experience, to develop novel, customized solutions that fit perfectly to skillset, personality and circumstances.

Study to comply, learn to understand and develop to progress.

What makes or breaks someone?

Josh Waitzkin, eight times chess champion and world champion in martial arts, in his book The Art of Learninganswers the question of high performance as "one of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in every discipline -- whether we are speaking about sports, business negotiations, or even presidential debates -- is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle" and continues, saying, "Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer and it should be nurtured continually."

Resilience lies in knowing ourselves as much, if not more, than public knowledge. Rules, as part of common knowledge then, are merely manifestation of the present, not of the future. And he who ignores the future, lives in the past and by definition remains oblivious.

By understanding a. our capabilities, b. strengths and weaknesses, and c. our potential we are able to benchmark them to the skills of others. This is where our advantage, our Unique Selling Proposition (USP), lies well hidden. With a personalized skillset and approach, constantly developing, we can unlock our potential. Steve Jobs beautifully summarizes it in 45 seconds: Once you realize that every rule that exists was made by other people no smarter than you, you will never be the same.

To make it, you might need to break it. Rules don't rule -- but you can.