“There’s a misconception that survival of the fittest means survival of the most aggressive. The adjective ‘Darwinian’ used to refer to ruthless competition; you used to read that in business journals. But that’s not what Darwinian means to a biologist; it’s whatever leads to reproductive success.” – Stephen Pinker
Is negotiation about winning by gaining advantage, or is it about winning by making your negotiating “competitor” happy?
Modern capitalism has drastically different modalities from even 50 years ago, but most core principles remain constant. Although technology has drastically changed the face of business and the available opportunities, entrepreneurship, team-building, and exploitation of advantages still work far better for most people than attempting to take the world by force and leaving carnage behind.
Competition can (and should) lead to a healthy enmity with partners, customers, vendors, and enemies. Like a dance (where two partners combine their separate skills to achieve a common goal), a good competitive scenario can be an advantage to all involved in the activity. Coordinated skills, synchronized actions, and a common respect can lead to amazing results—even for the “enemies” working against each other.
Chess – a Metaphor for Reality
While many games rely on elements of chance to make them interesting, Chess is a unique game because skill plays such a dominant role in the game. A player with even a marginally better understanding of the implications of current move options and the opposition’s potential counter moves can easily overwhelm a weaker player. This advantage is so pronounced that two unmatched players can quickly create a problem:
Chess is unique because it can be played spontaneously, quickly, and without much care OR it can become a long, drawn-out, agonizingly painful process of planning, tactics, countertactics, and bloodshed.
In most business transactions, competition is rarely a zero-sum game for any party. Most transactions must result in a win (at least on a perceived level), or future transactions are at risk. Even when one party has a significant advantage with resources, information, or abilities, unfair leverage makes interactions so uninteresting that although advantage might be taken in the short run, it’s rare for abused parties to willingly return to painful situations. Even though a win might feel like a victory, if it’s unfairly weighted, things will not go as smoothly in the future.
When two players are well matched, it’s more engaging than when one player can bully the other at will. When a player in chess has abilities that are well matched with the opposing player, the game becomes far more interesting to both players. To keep the interest of both players when one player has a large advantage, it might be helpful for the stronger player to creatively tutor the struggling player with insights and discussions about options along the way.
When a few games are played together with this more cooperative approach, it serves both parties in ways that might not seem obvious at first. There is (predictable) satisfaction when one person teaches another and knowledge transfer occurs. When the weaker player’s abilities are raised, it becomes a benefit to that player’s future games. As the mentoring player, the act of teaching a skill or philosophy actually strengthens that players abilities, and hones their mental processes. The process raises the future prospects of both players (like a rising tide lifting all boats), short-term games are more interesting, and future games become more challenging.
Much like weightlifting, a little extra proactive effort in MANY life experiences can build and lift others while we help ourselves—this “progress through resistance” doesn’t rely on taking shortcuts—it requires a conscious desire to help others, cooperation in stressful situations, and intentful actions to effectively work well with others who may not have your best interest in mind.
Relationships and Chess
Most stable relationships maintain a balance of power at a level where everybody is comfortable. It does not mean that every party is equally matched in abilities, resources, or social connections, but it does mean that an equilibrium has been reached where everybody gives and gains enough from the relationship to want to continue.
When individuals (and companies) behave in their own self-interest, they are able to optimize their own positions. While not a perfect process (people have varying levels of talent and motivation), people do tend to work harder for a cause they believe in (themselves) than they do for other people.
A good understanding of the cooperative potential of competition can guide seemingly confrontational situations into creative partnerships where healthy, symbiotic (and sometimes hidden) partnerships can emerge. Although a profit motive is pretty universal, there are often softer, more important motivations that should be leveraged.
Imagine two companies that serve a similar client base. One company’s advantages might include financial resources, property, and an established workforce. A competitor might be struggling financially, but possesses intellectual property (a patent) that will revolutionize the industry. In some scenarios, the more powerful company might work (via lawsuit, customer intimidation, or more sinister means) to make it difficult for the patent holder to take their product to market. (See “Flash of Genius” for an example: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1054588/) While this sort of heavy-handed technique is common in business, it’s not nearly as powerful (or effective) as many of the modern royalty and licensing agreements that allow inventors to take their (often brilliant) ideas to market without having to control all the means of production.
Chess and Ballroom Dance
One of the most interesting aspects of individual competition sports that sometimes rely on partnering (dance, figure skating, or tennis) is the balancing of individual talents, personalities, motivation levels, and agendas. Career trainers work with athletes over decades to bring talented people together in a unity that can’t happen by accident. A contractual (formal or understood) relationship needs to exist between the partners—without agreement on every level, the process can be very painful and difficult.
Ballroom dance has traditionally been a coordination between a male and female partner—each with a role to play. Each relies on the skill and attention of the other to execute moves in harmony. Each has a different role to play, and each plays the role differently. Depending on the type of competition, usually the pair is judged together, and individual agendas (exposed) will lower the overall score. Balance, equity, and harmony are key elements that can ruin a routine. Execution of the physical aspects of the moves often becomes a secondary element in professional-level competitions—even if the scores are focused on technical elements.
While gender and equality problems abound in the real world, consciously acknowledging strengths and weaknesses (in ourselves, trading partners, and competitors) can neutralize these problems—especially when people can establish common grounds for understanding. Effective competitors in dance competitions (much like chess) can work through and around mutual perspective gaps to find solutions that work well for all parties. When the parties can additionally use chess-like abilities to understand that short-term sacrifices to (shortcutted, pilfered, or bullied) profits are worth investing to gain a more stable foothold in a bigger game.
Applying a good understanding of the type of collaboration needed to create and execute a good ballroom-dance routine to a chess game would create a scenario where both chess players (regardless of skill level, experience, and ability to foresee future scenarios) can have a mutually-rewarding and entertaining experience.
Chess—Is it About War?
Even in traditional historical warfare (think of Rome, Persian, Mongolian, Britain empires…), once a land is conquered, the forces that move through typically occupied and controlled their conquests. Rarely were the inhabitants of a land completely wiped out—the human capital of the conquest (and its ability to produce) was usually more important than capturing the spoils of war. Those who ruled by force thought in terms of generational control—the short term conquest was a minor event.
The empires that existed for long periods of time used completely different approaches to war than those who burned out quickly.
Chess has military implications and roots. It implies death and conquering. The methods in the game can use intrigue, brute force, or subterfuge to win. It also relies heavily on understanding the “enemy” and exploiting holes in its perspective.
The preceding discussion of chess, dance, and relationships can be corralled and consolidated into a common strategy, but it requires a more mature self-awareness than most of the war that has existed. Especially in business and interpersonal relationships, when one understands the need to nurture and develop (formal and informal) partnerships and can find others who have common perspectives, magic can (and does) happen.
Some of the most rewarding projects and deals are those where formal contracts with strict rules are not necessary. When parties can work together with a common beneficial goal, things work better. When projects are coordinated with both financial and aesthetic motivations of all involved parties, things work better. When finances are a measuring stick (vs a motivational tool), things work well.
Moving Walkways and Chess/Dance Coordination
When faced with a complex business or relationship dilemma where conflict or competition seems overwhelming, it is usually not comfortable (or even possible) to negotiate a coordinated partnership without a deep dive.
Intimate relationships (at least meaningful, lasting ones) take time to develop. They require a significant amount of time investment to be healthy (both volume of time and consistency over time.) They require parties with enough emotional intelligence to effectively be able to work well together.
Business relationships often require far less time and maintenance, but the touch points may be much more intense and time sensitive. The process of learning about your potential partner’s motivations and resources may be difficult to discover. Some of this will be external research. Much of it will be establishing common goals. Some of it will require developing personal friendships.
Perhaps the most important factor in effectively getting to know your potential partner’s perspective and motivation is identifying PERSONAL goals, pain points, and hopes. Taking these REAL issues into a negotiation can help establish and discover how your partner’s (or enemy’s) goals can fit with yours to make things easier.
Remember—a good negotiation always results in a (perceived) win-win scenario. If your negotiations leave your trading partner happy (and your needs are met), the door is open to future deals and partnerships. 10% extra profit on a deal is unwise if it kills future deals. A 10% discount can also be detrimental (and even insulting) if the customer values other softer variables than price.