Art world to warlords: I'm a negotiation coach for million-dollar deals. Image 1.

Laura Yan

Author, as told to

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Elizabeth Sanchez



In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears’ anonymous interview series, we talk to a negotiation consultant who coaches clients how to bluff their way through high-stakes talks.

I’m a negotiation consultant. I go out to client sites all over the world and teach classes on negotiation strategy.

I’ve worked with dozens of industries: video games, fine arts, heavy manufacturing, light manufacturing, technology, consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, organ donations, charities and non-profits, the military, the government, foreign affiliated services. And I’ve traveled for training sessions all over the United States, as well as to Mexico, England, Turkey, Australia, China, including Shanghai and Hong Kong, Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Traveling is one of the biggest perks of the job.

I prepare for the training sessions about a month in advance, between my travels. When a client comes in, I’ll introduce myself and set up a customization process. I look for an understanding of their problem and their vocabulary. Then, we write materials for them using details that are as realistic and accurate as possible, and schedule the module. On average, I do about two or three of these a month.



Path of least 

I took the path of least resistance, going from college straight to law school. I wound up at Harvard, and from there continued on this path. I went to a law firm in Chicago where I was a litigator for about five years. I hit the partnership ceiling at the firm: that’s when you either make partner or you don’t. In my case, my office never made a partner in all the time I was there. I start looked around for new places to go. It was during this period that I also met my girlfriend, who is now my wife. It occured to me that I didn’t want to break up with her when she left—she’s an academic, so she had to go where the research and funding were. I had to decide pretty quickly if I was going to keep practicing law in one place or do something completely different.

I needed something flexible. Around that time, a friend of mine who was working for the company I currently work for came to me and said they were trying to hire somebody. Their original plans had burned down, and they needed someone immediately. Could I take over a class for them, so they could see how I worked, if I was a good negotiator or not, and if I liked it, and they liked me, could I then go to Dubai and run a training course for a group of 40 engineers?

This all happened within a month or two. First I taught a module of a public seminar, and watched my friend—the one who hired me—teach a class for a large automobile company in Detroit. From there, it was pretty much, now you’ve got a solo gig. Then I went to Dubai.

The four types of negotiator profiles

— The Naïve Negotiator: Trusts everyone, easily persuaded, easily exploited, does not think about how to protect his own interests.

— The Submissive Negotiator: an amateur who is not strategic about when to be open and when to bluff. Indecisive, uncertain, and unpredictable.

— The Analytic Negotiator: combines a basic level of trust with analysis of a situation’s opportunities and risks. Uses instinct and past experience to help make decisions.

The Distrustful Negotiator: Suspicious and skittish. May overanalyze a situation to avoid being duped. Worst negotiating style.

Source: Forbes


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Solo show

Dubai is a terrible place. This was in 2011, during the summer, and it was brutally, wickedly hot. Even as a native Texan, it was the worst climate I’ve ever experienced. The training was for a mobile technology company, and they were negotiating with people who owned various cell towers in the Middle East and Africa.

The class had an incredible hodgepodge of people from different parts of the world, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds, all assembled together. It was incredibly diverse, except in terms of gender. There were maybe two women in the room.

There was a huge range of negotiations, from negotiations with businesses owned by wealthy Saudis—very high-end, very technical—to guys who went from village to village in Africa, negotiating with local warlords and figuring out territorial splits between various tribal affiliations in order to get the rights to a cell tower in the village. It was a fun job. I’ve been doing negotiation consulting ever since.

My favorite clients are the ones that do something very unusual, like labor unions, the military, or art auctioneers. I worked with a military unit once that had recently come back from Afghanistan. They were being redeployed to do negotiations with embassies around the world. Most of them were very young, not many of them were college graduates, and they were extremely talented. They came up through the ranks because of their interest and drive. You wind up with some really effective negotiators this way.

I see the least skillful negotiators in environments that are very structured. You go into the job, you hit a few benchmarks, and you’re done for the day. The better negotiators come out of fluid environments, when there are more chaotic, less tangible requirements—and people have to succeed on their own terms to be noticed.

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Fake diplomats

THE BEST STRATEGIES I’VE ENCOUNTERED weren’t actually from clients, but from employees. We had a complex training set up for a client who’s doing a lot work overseas with young negotiators who were going to be thrown into difficult, stressful negotiations on a regular basis. They wanted some experience working with interpreters.

We set up a fake diplomatic exercise in which the client group is trying to get a person, an embassy employee who’s a native of this totalitarian state, to get released from jail. (The prompt was, he was thrown in jail after getting into a traffic accident with a minister’s wife.) And so the client group’s four to five negotiators are sitting down with a representative of this dictatorial regime, trying to convince them to release their employee from custody. We hired two pairs of interpreters, and assigned one person from each pair a different role. We told one French and one Arabic interpreter to play the counterpart, to only work in their native language, and the other interpreters to actually function as interpreters.

My initial concern was that the interpreters would be inadequate. The woman I picked as the Arab counterpart was extremely shy and diffident. She didn’t seem like she was tough enough to stand up to these young men and women who were very aggressive and wanted to show off in front of their boss. The French interpreter seemed like he was just checked out. I thought he might have been drunk. It didn’t seem like he was paying attention, didn’t seem like he was familiar with the materials. I was really concerned. And then, we got into the exercise, and boy was I wrong.

They were very, very aware of their real task, which was to be as tough as possible while staying within realistic bounds to give the clients a chance to try a difficult negotiation. 

The most common negotiation tactics

 Highball/Lowball: making an extremely high or low offer (29%).

 Bogey: pretending a certain issue is important when it's really a distraction (17%).

 Snow Job: overwhelming the other party with too much information (12%).

 The Nibble: asking for a small concession that wasn’t previously discussed (11%).

 Lack of Authority: refusing to negotiate further if your counterpart is not authorized to make decisions (11%).

 Good Cop/Bad Cop: one negotiator is reasonable, the other is not (8%).

 Deadline: imposing a hard and/or short time frame that pressures the other party into making a decision (6%).

 The Brink: issuing an ultimatium, or opting for a “take it or leave it” approach (6%).

Source: American Management Association Playbook


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Worst behavior

SO, THE ARAB WOMAN, who had seemed so timid just moments earlier, suddenly flipped into gear. She berated them, she demanded they apologize for insulting her. She provoked them into saying things that she would later take offense at and, again, demand apologies for. Then, she criticized their apologies for being being typically American, as well as offensive and insensitive toward her culture. She just took offense at everything and turned it into a tactic, and then started demanding concessions from them as a means of making amends. They were very flustered and had no idea how to handle that.

The French interpreter turned out to be Haitian, and he had interpreted the instructions to be as corrupt and nasty a bureaucrat as he could be. He said later, he took it from his memories as a kid of Haitian bureaucrats. He was sleazy and slimy. Over and over, he told these people rank, blatant lies, and they knew it. He would smile and laugh, and show no concern whatsoever while he twisted every truth, making everything seem like it was their fault.

It eventually got to the point where he started asking for bribes—which I wouldn’t have expected. They wouldn’t give in to that, because it was an exercise. And then he started asking for a bribe in the real world, asking if you could make this worth my while, of course I could move my employer, I want to do this, I want to do that, I could make this much easier for you. And I was in the room. He knew I was there. It was loathsome behavior. And in the context of an exercise, it was perfect: exactly what they needed to be dealing with. Learn how to keep a straight face, learn how to not take offense, learn how to take something in stride and deal with it.

They were really effective strategies I would never ever, ever want to see someone use in the real world. But I know the clients are going to see them. And they were very glad they did the exercise afterwards.



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Lives at stake

In terms of the size of the deals we’re negotiating, in Afghanistan it was an eight-digits negotiation, in the tens of millions. That’s high, but it’s not the highest we’ve seen. It’s hard to quantify some of them. For example, with the labor unions, some of their negotiations become all of the wages the company will pay over the next three years, plus benefits, working conditions, things like healthy and safety. Lives can be at stake.

We’ve worked with organ donation coordinators who were working to make sure that donated organs can be given effectively and efficiently. That can be tremendously intimidating and makes you realize how significant some of these transactions are.

Once, working with the military, someone asked me in a personal conversation after class: if I’m negotiating with a village chieftain and I want to know who makes IEDs, what should I do with my weapons? Should I carry my rifle or give to my buddy to carry it for me? Should I carry my sidearm or just have it in my holster the whole time, or take it off completely to look friendlier? I had to say, look, I have no clue. I can generally tell you how people will respond to pressure under traditional negotiation, but in this very specific circumstance there’s too much going on that I can’t read into. It’s so important that I’m not going to pretend.

What people think about negotiation

48% of people always feel apprehensive about salary negotiations, 39% sometimes feel that way, and 13% claim to never feel nervous.

76% of people regret not asking for a higher salary during an initial interview.

Nearly 4o% of American men report they feel comfortable negotiating

Fewer than 26% of American women report they feel comfortable negotiating.

39% of Americans report feeling nervous about the thought of negotiating.

21 % of Germans say they're “excited” about the prospect of negotiating.

47% of Indians say they feel confident in their negotiation skills.

21% of South Koreans feel indifferent about negotiation.

Source: Forbes,

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People skills

Even if the negotiations are so hard or unusual that I can’t get a grip on it personally, it’s not hard to help a client figure it out. You can set up test problems and cases so that they can test each other—grill each other. This is pretty common with high-level finance clients who are doing very technical work. I don’t know enough finance to follow their negotiations, but we can design templates for them based on real-world contracts. Then we’ll turn them loose and have them coach each other as much as we’re coaching them. We’ll teach them the fundamentals and they work on the specifics.

A lot of what we teach is communication skills. I’m always doing that with clients. Anybody I’m trying to work with is trying to listen more effectively, speak more clearly, be understood, understand the other side’s perspective, bend them around to your perspective.

I’ve taken a tremendous pay cut from being a lawyer, but it’s been so much more interesting, so much more fun, so much more personally stimulating. People are happy when they leave the training. They look forward to seeing you again. I miss the prestige, sometimes, of walking into an office and having people pay attention because now the big money lawyers are here, but I really appreciate the fact that even though this is a much more quiet thing, it’s a happier thing. If I’d known how much more I’d enjoy this than practicing law, I would have made the transition a lot earlier.

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