Grammar and Negotiation

We should settle

We could settle

We might settle

What are the different meanings here?

Did you know that grammar influences negotiation?

Words like should, could and might are called modal verbs. They modify the main verb in the sentence to make it weaker or to indicate likelihood. In the case above, they modify the verb settle.

Apart from modal verbs, there are other words that express modality. Words like think, suppose, unfortunately and probably. Look at these examples:

I think we can …

I suppose we can …

Unfortunately we can’t …

We probably won’t …

Why do we care about modality in negotiation? Because it changes the emotional tone of the negotiation.

If you want to deliver bad news without being abrupt, use modality: Instead of I am not doing that, use I am probably not able to do that.

If you want to ask the other party for a concession without committing to giving one, use modality: Instead of I will give you X if you give me Y, try If you give me Y I might be able to give you X

If you want to be crystal clear about an outcome or a condition, be sure not to use modality: Instead of I don’t think I could do that, use That is not possible.

And finally, one of my favourite tips, if you want to get something on the table without committing to it, use questions with modality, for instance: Should we consider… or Wouldn’t it be better to …

Language matters in negotiation. You may intuitively use these grammar techniques but it’s helpful to understand their power.



Anzac Parade

I was in Canberra last week delivering negotiation training for a federal government department.

I have always loved Canberra. As a child, I loved trying to guess which country’s embassy we were passing, and I was enthralled with the carillon. These days, it’s the design that draws me in. The grandeur and prominence of the key buildings, the roads and thoroughfares in geometric shapes and the elegance of the lake.

Last week was a work trip, so I was mostly just traipsing between the hotel and the client’s offices. However, each taxi trip landed me briefly on Anzac Parade, that glorious boulevard running from the War Memorial to the lake and looking directly across at the old and new parliament houses.

Anzac Parade is quite something. Visually, it is very commanding with the red gravel made from crushed Canberra bricks, and the rows of memorials flanked by towering trees.

I can’t help feeling that Anzac Parade is designed to prepare us for the sombre ceremonies held there. It’s priming us for solemnity and reverence.

Preparing for a negotiation is no different. Research shows that anxiety leads to poorer outcomes in a negotiation; to manage this, many people have rituals to ready themselves … wearing a much-loved shirt, eating a favourite breakfast, playing an inspiring soundtrack.

It’s important to build your very own rituals for the lead-up to a negotiation. It builds the connection in your brain to memories of prior negotiations and prepares you for what is to come.

What are your pre-negotiation traditions?



A Muscle Worth Exercising

My son is at uni studying medical science. Since March, all of his lectures have been online due to COVID. He likes to move around the house a bit but occasionally we share a desk in my home office.

This term he is learning about processes of disease and I am constantly catching glimpses of things like gangrenous feet, black lungs and necrotising flesh.

I find the images mostly interesting and occasionally disgusting. He finds them intriguing, although I’ve spotted a crinkled nose from time to time.

It strikes me that seeing all these graphic photos (and, prior to COVID, working with cadavers in the lab) will stand him in good stead when he treats real life humans at some stage in the future. He is being desensitised to the things we non-medical types find a bit yucky.

For people learning to negotiate, especially women, desensitising is also necessary. We must get used to asking for things. We must get used to hearing no. We must start saying no and sticking up for ourselves.

It’s a different sort of desensitising to my son’s experience of looking at medical images, but negotiation is definitely a muscle worth exercising.

If you’d like to find out more about the group training and individual coaching programs I offer, do get in touch.

Which Negotiator are You?

My favourite TV show EVER is the West Wing.

I hope you’ve heard of it. It was an award-winning show set in the West Wing of the White House and was noted for its intelligent scripts and “walk and talk” scenes as the actors moved through lengthy hallways.

After seven award-winning seasons, the West Wing ceased production in 2006. However, it has attracted attention again recently with various cast reunions designed to encourage voter participation in the upcoming US elections.

So, in honour of my favourite TV show, here’s my question for the week … which West Wing negotiator are you:

  • Josh Lyman – an outspoken, cocky, slightly aggressive negotiator, loved by colleagues but not trusted by adversaries?
  • Jed Bartlett – a philosophical and scholarly negotiator who uses charm, smarts and humour to disarm the other party?
  • Sam Seaborn – let’s face it, a negotiator so dang good-looking opponents are constantly distracted and just give in?
  • CJ Cregg – a strong, sassy negotiator with a high level of emotional intelligence who is a master at reading people’s moods and winning them over with quick-witted responses?
  • Toby Ziegler – a brooding and misunderstood negotiator with an acid tongue, a heart of gold and a willingness to go to the wall for his principles?
  • Leo McGarry – a quiet, compassionate yet fiercely loyal and influential negotiator who pushes others to take the limelight?

Who are you most like? I’d love to hear.



Djokovic and Blame Shifting

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One of the biggest news stories this week is about Novak Djokovic being expelled from the US Open after smacking a tennis ball into the throat of a lineswoman.

In discussions with the match officials afterwards, Djokovic kept insisting she was fine because she didn’t have to go to hospital. He was even heard to say: “If she would have gotten up right away …”.

While not explicit, the subtext of his comments is that HE would not have been disqualified if SHE had reacted in a different manner.

I don’t want to join any pile-on of Djokovic but this is a classic example of blame shifting. Yes, he didn’t intend to do it. Yes, he is sorry that she was hurt. But no, her reaction did not cause him to be disqualified; his own actions did.

It’s obvious Djokovic was negotiating with match officials to stay on the court. “It’s my career, my grand slam, centre stage”, he said. The match rules are clear so he probably had little chance of reversing the decision, but at the very least he needed to take responsibility and apologise for his actions, not blame the injured woman.

Blame shifting has no place in a negotiation. All it does is lead you away from a potential resolution. Don’t let your desire to be blameless lead to a failed negotiation. A bruised ego is a small price to pay for a big win.


If you are interested, you can watch some of the action here: Novak Djokovic disqualified from US Open

Equal Pay Day 2020

Using ABS labour force data, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has calculated that women must work an additional 59 days a year to earn the same annual salary as men.

Last Friday 28th August was declared Equal Pay Day because it was the 59th day since the end of the 2019/20 financial year.

The national gender pay gap is unchanged from last year and stands at 14%. In some industries, the gender pay gap averages 24.1%.

Using WGEA data, the full-time total remuneration gender pay gap shows that men working full-time earn nearly $26,000 a year more than women working full-time.

$26,000 a year! Who would you rather be?

You can find the WGEA’s insights here: .

It’s worth noting that gender equality is good for individuals, good for families and good for business. It’s just also the decent thing for workplaces to do.

Women have a role to play too. The WGEA suggests that women should learn to negotiate their salaries and know their value. My Sustainable Negotiation coaching course has been designed specifically for this.

Get in touch in you want more information or to hear some of the success stories.

The spotlight on me

I was preening my rapidly greying hair yesterday while one of my daughters was looking on. I asked for her opinion and she said: “to be honest, Mum, I can’t tell the difference between when you think it looks good and when you don’t”. Then, in that condescending tone only teenagers can manage, she added: “It’s called the Spotlight Effect, you know”.

I did know and, ironically, I was succumbing to it.

The Spotlight Effect is a cognitive bias that makes us think we are being noticed way more than we really are. If we have been noticed, the Spotlight Effect makes us think the people who saw our slip-up or our flaw care much more than they really do.

It happens when we trip over, when we say something silly, and when we fixate on some perceived flaw or other. We think everyone has seen. And if they have seen, we think they care a great deal about it.

Have you ever felt self-conscious when you stumble over words in an important meeting or presentation? Probably. Have you ever cared or been judgemental when someone else stumbles in similar circumstances? Probably not.

What should we do?

  • Don’t let the Spotlight Effect win. Don’t avoid advocating for yourself because you are worried other people will notice or care.
  • When you do something great, don’t assume others have noticed. When you need others to know what you have achieved, find a way to tell them.

I work with my negotiation coaching clients to find ways of speaking up and speaking out in nerve-wracking situations. Get in touch if you want to learn more.


A lesson in active listening

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I know I’ve been posting a lot recently about American politics. I can’t help it; the ground is just so fertile. At least this week one of the key players is an Aussie.

Two weeks ago, Jonathan Swan interviewed Donald Trump. The interview has gone viral, even spawning numerous memes.

My favourite part of the interview was this:

Trump: There are those that say you can test too much.

Swan: Who says that?

Trump: Just read the manuals. Read the books.

Swan: Manuals? What manuals?

Trump: Read the books!

Swan: What books?

This exchange is a classic display of active listening. Swan isn’t checking his notes for his next question for Trump. He isn’t scrambling for facts to prosecute a claim. He isn’t rushing to get through his list of prepared questions. He is simply asking Trump for clarification.

The most blistering moments from the interview, the ones that have received the most attention, are those when Swan is actively listening and responding to Trump.

The high engagement levels and the simple follow-up questions expose the gems.

It’s no surprise that I recommend a similar approach in negotiation. Stop thinking about your message and the next thing you will say and start really listening to the other party. The gems are there … you just need to get out of your own way so you can hear them.


An Ethical Blind Spot


Jack and Jill have a terrible car accident. Both cars are destroyed, but thankfully neither person is hurt.

They reflect on how lucky they are to survive the collision uninjured and then start gathering any salvageable personal effects from their cars.

Retrieving a bottle of Penfolds Grange from the glovebox, Jill says “My car is completely trashed but this bottle is intact. I think we should celebrate our good luck.”

Jill hands Jack the bottle; he opens it, drinks deeply and hands it back. Surprisingly, Jill doesn’t take a drink.

“Aren’t you having any?”, Jack asks.

“No”, says Jill, “I think I will just wait for the police…”.

I like this joke. They’ve both had a terrible shock, but Jill manages to keep her wits about her.

Jack might be a bit foolish, but Jill is sneaky. She offers the wine to him to celebrate their survival, but then she doesn’t join in and leaves him exposed to a drink-driving charge.

So, actually, she’s not just sneaky, she’s unethical.

I am uncomfortable with Jill’s behaviour. I know this is just a joke, but I have been in too many negotiations where there is unethical behaviour. Sometimes it’s blatant and obvious but more often it’s what Max Bazerman, Harvard professor and negotiation and behavioural ethics specialist, calls “bounded ethicality”.

Bazerman describes “bounded ethicality” as questionable behaviour that occurs in the heat of the moment; it is most often embellishment of facts or misleading omissions. He says that our ability to make ethical choices can be affected by stress or the pressure of the situation. We don’t recognise the “bounded ethicality” in ourselves, and even after the negotiation we don’t see that our behaviour was inconsistent with our values.

According to Bazerman and his research colleagues, this ethical blind spot is more common than we realise. In my experience, parties don’t usually enter negotiations intending to deceive or defraud each other, they just get so caught up in wanting to win that they bend their own rules.

How can we resist “bounded ethicality” and stay true to our values in a negotiation? These tips are a good starting point:

  1. Use a negotiation framework that puts a strong emphasis on preparation before the negotiation so that you are less likely to deviate from the plan.
  2. Practise and preferably role play monitoring your emotions so you keep a clearer head when the negotiation triggers a volatile response in you.
  3. Ward off the win-at-all costs mentality that leads to an ethical blind spot by carefully selecting the criteria you use to judge the success of the negotiation; for example, include an assessment of whether your actions during the negotiation were values-aligned.

If you want to learn more about this, do get in touch.

As for our protagonists, perhaps Jill was impacted by “bounded ethicality”. Under normal circumstances she may not have trapped Jack in that way, but under pressure she did. Maybe she had more than one blind spot?

Embarrassment as a Superpower

Photo by me


I was on the sidelines of my daughter’s sport over the weekend, although this is no regular sporting field. The lucky girl sails and I had the pleasure of being out on the harbour on a support boat while she trained with her new sailing partner.

She has recently transitioned to a bigger two-person boat and I was chatting with the other sailor’s father and saying how pleased I am with the conscious coupling (see what I did there). The other sailor is a few years older and has been sailing larger, double-handed boats for several years. She is a kind and patient tutor to my daughter, and they are gelling well as a sailing duo.

I mentioned to the dad that my daughter had been embarrassed about her inexperience in the larger, double-handed boat but that this was abating with the thoughtful feedback she was receiving from his daughter.

To my surprise, instead of expressing pride at my praise of his daughter, he simply said: “I tell my kids that being able to cope with embarrassment is a superpower”.

And boom, mic drop, I have a new perspective on embarrassment!

I do already work with this concept (I set my negotiation coaching clients weekly challenges to help them get used to taking social risks and asking other people for things) but I hadn’t previously thought of it as a superpower.

On the surface, avoiding embarrassment seems like a good bit of self-care but there are times when it does more harm than good. If you never ask for things in case you hear “no”, you’ll never know what you can achieve. If you never make a mistake learning to sail a new boat, you’ll never learn how to improve.

Do you embrace the superpower of embarrassment?