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Hot Air & Substance

What I love about giving Negotiatress workshops is that no two workshops are the same. Each workshop is an opportunity to dig into the context that each participant brings with her, and to break down deeper concepts in negotiation.

During last week’s London workshop we had a great discussion about the nuanced difference between the true substance of a negotiation, and the deliberations surrounding it. Differentiating these two is a crucial negotiation skill men and women often struggle with.

How to Cope with Smokescreens

Since negotiations tend to be fast-paced and dynamic, translating words to cost/benefit structures in real-time can be challenging. This is true even when both sides negotiate in earnest and don’t make a conscious effort to throw each other off.

Sadly, the old fashioned assumption about negotiation, is that you should practice tactics to confuse and manipulate your partner, and generally set a wide smoke-screen between them and your true interests. Pretend like you are giving them a lot, but give them nothing really. Preoccupy them with a magic trick while you pickpocket them. Let’s call this layer of negotiation “hot air“.

Here’s an example for clarity: There are four apples on the table, your counterpart asks for two. You give them one- that’s the substance. You used different tactics to make them think they got three, that’s hot air. (Equally, your personality might be such that you actually gave them three, but were so unpleasant that they are convinced you gave them one).

Why Hot Air is Bad Negotiating

The old fashioned theory is not wrong, if you are looking to be a great pickpocket, you definitely should use hot air! You also definitely stumbled upon the wrong blog.


Because this blog is about being a good negotiator, which means balancing maximisation of gains with keeping the other party interested in future negotiations. Focusing your efforts on creating hot air, rather than focusing on the best possible outcome, means you’re spending your energy on deflecting attempts of aggression and planning your own retaliation, rather than on the substance of negotiation.

The effect on the outcome is mathematical- say you invest 35% of your attention on blowing hot air to deceive your “opponent”. You better count on 35% to figure out when they are doing exactly the same to you (it should not come as a surprise that others care as much about their own interests as you do, and will eventually react to deceitful behaviour in kind). That leaves you a measly 30% of attention to substance, or to your actual cost/benefit structure.

Even if you did get the better of someone one time, because they bought into your hot air, they will eventually go home with one apple and a sour feeling of being cheated. Next time, prepare to use 45% of your energy on deflection and watch your attention to substance spiral down.

As good negotiators we definitely should be able to identify when we’ve gone home with one apple rather than three. As excellent negotiators, we need to understand that hot air is a lazy method that will only last you so long and will end up severely damaging the substance of negotiation.

Negotiating for what Matters

Another reason to get rid of hot air is that if you need smoke screens to get what you want, it means you genuinely think that who you are or the cause you are forwarding are not good enough to stand alone or win a negotiation. For some people, that is the case: all they want is to win, regardless of whether what they actually want is useful or necessary. You should ask yourself if you want to negotiate with such people, or be that kind of person yourself.

Don’t be this guy, no one likes him

On a brighter note- more often than not we are capable of more than we think, and resort to mud-throwing and tricks out of lack of self-confidence. The key here, as always, is building confidence. Women actually have a higher tendency to base themselves on concrete achievements and fairness in negotiation rather than empty bragging. This should actually be a sign of much higher self-confidence, though we’re often disparaged and called “naive” or “soft” for acting this way.

Have the Goods

The best way to be a good negotiator is not to pretend you are a good negotiator-it is to make sure you’ve got the goods. Come prepared, do your homework, and practice your points rather than winging it (as women, we statistically already do this more than men, and this is Negotiatress's point in a nutshell- we already have the strengths necessary to be good negotiators, we just have to recognize and wield them). You may need to invest more effort at first, but you’ll end up saving relationships and future potential bargains, and building credibility.

Next weeks’s post will come with a special holiday’s treat, so make sure to follow (easily done through the homepage)

See you next post!

Yasmine Guerin

Founder of Negotiatress

Originally posted on December 15, 2019 by Negotiatress



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