Spirituality & the Art of Negotiation


It’s well accepted and understood that people with a higher degree of emotional intelligence make better negotiators that those without. Some people may just be born with a high degree of emotional intelligence, while others, like me, have to work hard at it, and others still never had it, won’t work at it and thus never willhave it.

We’ve all met the hot headed man in his 40s still screaming over the phone to get his way. What might have worked on the playground at ten, does not actually work when dealing with sophisticated, civilized people in adulthood. In a nutshell, emotional intelligence is the ability to manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. What current research concludes is that how well we handle ourselves and others in business negotiations is more important than the training or expertise we posses.

Thankfully, my spiritual practice has enabled me to enhance and improve my negotiation skills. Not only have I improved negotiating, but I actually enjoy these conversations when I embrace a spiritual approach. My old plan of attack was to drink a few cups of coffee and prepare for battle.

My ego loved this game plan, but after having adopted and implemented a spiritual practice for many years, I have come to enjoy the art of negotiating. I say art because Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that, “Every artist was at first an amateur,” and the same is true for negotiation. A successful negotiation can be a collaborative effort artfully woven into a tapestry that supports both sides.

The key spiritual tools that have enhanced my negotiations skills are detachment from ego, seeking first to understand than to be understood,self-appraisal and self-examination, and open-mindedness.

Detachment is a well know spiritual principle. It’s an ability to detach your mind, and thus your emotional reactions, from what your ego desires. It’s not aloofness or disinterest. It’s actually comes from a true belief and acceptance of everything exactly as it exists at that moment in time.

When someone is practicing detachment, one acts like an observer or a witness. It comes from a real trust and knowing that all is well, and all will always be well,regardless of the outcome of the present negotiations. I first really started to understand this concept of detachment after reading the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is an ancient Chinese philosopher who founded Taoism in 6th century B.C. which is a way of life that embodies harmonious living.

This concept of detachment from selfish desires is also exemplified in other spiritual teachers, such as Jesus and Buddha. My personal experience is that in practicing detachment, I let go of negative emotions associated with trying to get my own way, such as anger and anxiety.

In Alice Woods Brooks’ article, The Softer Side of Negotiation published in the Harvard Business Review discusses how negative emotions like anxiety and anger do negatively impact the outcome of any negotiation. She concludes that, “bringing anger to a negotiation is like throwing a bomb on the process, and it’s apt to have a profound effect on the outcome.” Not a good one.

Similarly, Lao Tzu says, “The best fighter is never angry.”Anger in a way gives away your true power because you are so consumed by your own feelings that you are not able to drop into the present moment and understand the other person.
Detachment eliminates anger and anxiety. In doing so, it also opens the door for me to try and understand my opposition’s problem. Experienced negotiators know that one of the basic principles in negotiating is separating the people from the problem. By actually seeking to understand the problem of the opposition, it opens the door to finding creative solutions that can potentially solve both parties’ problems. This takes discipline and practice.

One must set aside one’s own self-interest to listen, learn and explore what the other person’s problems are. It’s very difficult to actually listen to someone else’s problems when you are only concerned about your own self- interests. St. Francis de Assisi and many other spiritual leaders teach the importance of seeking first to understand others, and the importance of listening.

Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic, quotes “Listen! Clam up your mouth and be silent like an oyster shell, for that tongue of yours is the enemy of the soul, my friend. When the lips are silent, the heart has a hundred tongues.”

Perhaps more important that understanding the problem, is understanding oneself. Growing up in the traditional family my mother always knew the importance of getting food for my father when he came through the door at night. Best not to talk to him about anything important until after he ate and had an opportunity to unwind. Besides the question of are you hungry, there is also, are you tired?

Beyond these basics, it is important to know yourself well enough to know when you start to feel any sort of negative emotion – this is a good time to perhaps decide to “pause” the negotiation by going to the bathroom, or even calling it off for 24 hours.

I have found that rarely is anything necessarily as urgent as people would convince you that it is. Certainly, there are some situations that time is of the essence, but most of the time I have observed that the tyranny of the moment is nothing but an illusion driven by fear. Take the break if you need it. Know yourself well enough to know if you need it. “Knowing others is intelligence;knowing yourself is true wisdom.Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power,” says Lao Tzu.

Lastly, all spiritual teachings have taught me to be open minded – to expand my thinking to consider that I may not know all that there is to know. In a society that highly values knowledge and intellectualism, saying the words,”I don’t know,” can be very hard. They are sometimes the precise words that are needed to enter a negotiation with an open mind.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science,” says Charles Darwin.

While basic negotiation principles include defining your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) up front; I think it is important to be open minded during the course of your negotiations. Detaching from the outcome, listening and understanding your opposition’s problem, and being open minded throughout the process may shine a light on other possible resolutions that you did not have the foresight to see when you initially determined your BATNA.

Albert Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” So have a BATNA, but be open to changing it. Another universal truth is that the only constant is change itself. It’s freeing to realize that the art of negotiating is to lean with trust into the impermanence of the ever changing moment.

Having a spiritual practice that you can invite into your negotiations opens the space to creating more productive interactions and thus more successful outcomes. Practicing detachment, seeking to understand your opposition’s problem, listening, knowing your limitations, and being open-minded can produce fruitful resolutions that perhaps neither party even anticipated.

Our future generations will face more worldly problems that require collaboration and building on the collective intelligence of both parties. Having a spiritual practice that seeks win/win solutions willplay an important role in negotiations and their resolutions. Keeping these principles as the heartbeat of all negotiations will ensure that both parties come out on the winning side.

Jennifer Clifton
Business Attorney


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