Arm wrestling is a game where one person wins and another loses, every time. No matter how you play the game, that fact never changes.
But negotiation trainer and coach Mihai Isman uses the game of arm wrestling to help his students understand two vital components of effective negotiations:
- Their own attitude about the person across the negotiation table, and
- Whether they lean toward a combative approach or a competitive approach
Mihai sets up the game by asking this question: “How many of you view your counterpart across the negotiating table as your opponent and how many see them as a negotiation partner?” In his experience, an average of 80% of the students say they view the person as a partner.
To test their answers, he pits them against each other in a game of arm wrestling according to the following rules:
- Each student squares off across the table from another student
- Each arm wrestling “win” scores one point
- The number of points your opponent scores is not important
- Your goal is to score as many points as possible for yourself within one minute
- No one may speak
The timer is set and the students are told to begin. The outcome is fascinating.
Many students immediately begin competing according to the traditional understanding of arm wrestling. They eat up their time by forcibly trying to force each other into submission. But there are others who recognize the subtleties of Mihai’s modified rules and take a different approach. They are able to communicate nonverbally—usually by allowing the other person to win the first round—that if each of them takes turns “losing” they will each accumulate an equal and large amount of points within the allotted time. When this happens, scores as high as 145 points can be achieved. Each of these students has accomplished the best outcome possible for themselves, and they did so through cooperation.
Mihai points out that his arm wrestling game has many parallels for negotiation.
Typically, when two negotiators square off, they respond to each other in ways similar to a traditional arm wrestling match. Despite the manner and amount of preparation each of the negotiators has done, when one of them begins to apply pressure to the situation, the other usually responds with pressure of their own. When this happens, flexibility and the opportunity to work together is compromised.
Though it feels almost counter-intuitive, it’s many times advantageous for the non-pressuring party not to apply pressure of their own in response. This puts the person on the other side of the table on notice that their strong-arm tactics may not be necessary and that more might be accomplished through a cooperative approach.
If a light just went on for you as you read that explanation, you are in good company. Mihai says that many of his clients have the same realization after playing the game. They see first-hand how negotiations don’t have to be adversarial in all cases. Cooperation can and many times, does happen.
But what if the party on the other side of the table continues to apply pressure? Can the negotiation still benefit from a cooperative approach? It’s possible, but becomes more and more difficult as more pressure is applied. The time may and likely will come that the cooperative approach will have to be abandoned.
Listen to episode 123 of the Negotiations Ninja podcast to hear MIhai describe his arm wrestling illustration in detail, to learn about the challenges of negotiating across cultures, and to understand why conflict is a necessary part of every negotiation.