TO NEGOTIATE IS HUMAN
The term “negotiate” derives from two Latin roots: neg, or “not” and otium, or “leisure.” Put them together and you get negotium, or “business.” (Or “not leisure,” which will strike a chord for all of you who find negotiating stressful.) The verb form of the Latin word is negotiat-: “done in the course of business.”
While this definition might seem a little broad, it fits our premise that negotiating lies at the heart of all business relationships, both between and within organizations.
In medieval France, traders and merchants were known as “negociants.” (The term is still used today for large-scale wine merchants who buy grapes or finished wines from a variety of growers, then combine and sell them under their own names.) It’s fair to assume that these early “negotiators” were people who led active lives in the economies of their day, in contrast to the more reflective pursuits of philosophers or religious orders. They were the doers, the dealers—the people who got things accomplished.
But the roots of negotiating reach back much further, into prehistory, when human social existence was first symbolized by exchanges within families or kinship groups. (Wedding rings entered the scene about 6,000 years ago, in predynastic Egypt.) These exchanges were linked to appropriate words and gestures—to performances that both led to the agreement (an advance-and-retreat that resembled dance or ritual battle) and then marked its completion (e.g. handshakes, initialed pieces of paper).
The Great Unknown
Commercial trade traces back many millennia, either as barter or with some form of money, from cattle to pieces of silver. Paleo-anthropologists have dated 50,000-year-old seashells discovered thousands of miles from any shore. The only logical explanation is that they used as currency in some kind of exchange.
Regardless of the unit of legal tender, ancient trade featured the same basic elements as negotiations of our day: explanations of value; argument and declarations of fairness; claims to trust. When material dealings still occurred mostly within kinship groups or tribes, such tactics were less important. But with the expansion of national or imperial boundaries and the growth of global trade routes, the world changed in a fundamental way. The benefits of trade grew exponentially, since both sides could now get stuff they couldn’t find in their neighborhoods. At the same time, the course of human social evolution took a radical turn.
We began dealing routinely with people we didn’t know.
It’s one thing to make an exchange with your son-in-law or your first cousin’s uncle by marriage, where both sides are constrained by family ties and community mores. It’s another thing entirely to stake your future—your money, your reputation, your ability to survive and thrive—on a transaction with a stranger. The business arena changed dramatically; everything got a lot more complicated. Now it wasn’t just the quality of your barley or your goats that mattered. It was how well you navigated the tricky terrain of language and body language; of cultural norms and social cues; of when to concede and when to draw the line.
These social adaptations are universal to human societies. To this day, they define—or disrupt—our interactions with people with whom we are unfamiliar. And they form the foundation for the guiding principles of Mobus Creative Negotiating:
Negotiation is a two-sided activity. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward, economic transaction involving goods and/or services. On the other, it entails human communication, a complex process with high potential for miscues and misinterpretation.
Negotiating generates anxiety because of our hard-wired fear of the unknown. When you don’t know the other person, you can’t be sure of what they might do, or what they might take from you. In other words, it’s natural to associate strangers with dangers. This helps explain why people resist planning for negotiations, and why rational economic judgment is so often jettisoned in the bargaining process. It also underlines the importance of a positive mental model for achieving successful outcomes. Until we view ourselves as negotiators, we’re unlikely to use the skills we’ve learned amid the stress of real, live deal-making.
Our species has adapted a range of responses to cope with the existential threat posed by strangers. These take three general forms: 1) reflexive self-defense and hostility; 2) guarded exploration of potential threats or rewards; 3) open-handed efforts to create mutual trust and turn a stranger into an ally. This spectrum corresponds to the Mobus Negotiating Continuum, the idea that different types of negotiations demand different tactics, strategies, and skill sets.
Negotiations are fluid, not fixed. Cut-and-dried business transactions between relative strangers often blossom into journeys of discovery and longer-term relationships. To capture maximum value for both sides, negotiators must flexibly adapt to twists and turns in this dynamic, unpredictable process.
In our next newsletter, we’ll begin to explore the Mobus Negotiating Continuum in more detail.