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Updated: May 2

A short instruction manual by Paul Emtsev

Associate Consultant, Rational Games

Leo Tolstoy once wrote:

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

This observation might not only be a good explanation for war and peace, but also a starting point to talk about negotiation.

How to negotiate on a unicycle

Negotiation is about finding ways to satisfy interests - both our own and those of our negotiation partners. It is not about changing others, but really understanding what they want, what we want and finding ways to make both sides coexist. Therefore, we ourselves are the main tool for any successful negotiation. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an instruction manual for that tool?

Why you are reading this manual

While maintenance makes sense for physical tools, I prefer the term “self-coordination” when it comes to human psychology. That is because the challenge of dealing with all the things going on inside our brains does not require periodical maintenance, but constant coordination.

It is only when we are balanced within ourselves that we have the capacity for empathy, compassion and constructive interactions with others. As long as we are still dealing with our own worries, turning in circles around our imaginary ego, how can we really be able to have a clear view on what is going on around us?

Our mental state defines how we see the world. When we are worried, people look dangerous. When we are happy, people look interesting. When we are angry, we might be convinced that we really want something that we later deeply regret. When we are stressed, we think that what we need is external change, while often that is not what really helps us.

It is only when we are in a self-coordinated balance that we are able to see reality clearly, define our own interests and be helpful to the people around us – skills that are preconditions for any successful negotiation.

Riding the unicycle

Think about self-coordination as riding a unicycle. It’s about constant balance: The moment your coordination stops, you fall on the ground. And while our brain activities are far more complex, I would argue that, just like on a unicycle, there are three main dimensions that need to be balanced within ourselves while we negotiate.

1. Speed

The first dimension is speed. In order to keep the right balance, it’s important not to ride a unicycle too fast or too slow. Mentally, we often drive too fast into the future or remain standing in the past. Whenever we realize that, it is helpful to adjust our thinking speed back to the present process. Regularly asking ourselves what is going on in this very moment keeps us back on track to move in harmony with the current state of things, not jump ahead or fall behind.

Famous concepts like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s “Flow State” or Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” are very much in accordance with that idea. What helps is to constantly check whether our time attention moves in the appropriate speed. The result is a clearer view on what is, not what was or might be.

2. Posture

After paying attention to our speed, let’s have a look at our posture. On a unicycle, posture is crucial. If we bend too much forwards or backwards, the unicycle will slip away beneath us. Transferred to human relationships, bending too much forwards means being too focused on the other side. Bending too much backwards means being too concerned about ourselves. The right balance comes from a straight posture that is in between the two extremes. With the right posture, we can see that beyond the either-or-logic of “me” and “you”, beyond the supposed choice between egoism and altruism, there is a space for both.

Psychological and neuroscientific research confirms that the understanding of interdependence is at the heart of developing skills like empathy and compassion. Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue even argues that there is no separate “I” at all, but that “I” only exists in the relation of “I-Thou”. Riding straight during negotiations therefore means being aware of both you and me as interdependent subjects.

3. Spin

Now that we ride at the right speed and in the right posture, there is one more important dimension that we should take care of. And that is how we spin sidewards when it gets curvy. Curves are a metaphor for our emotions. And when we are emotional, we tend to spin towards one of two extremes again: attachment and aversion. On the attachment side, we badly want. On the aversion side, we strongly reject. If we spin too much to either direction, we slip sideways.

In the last decades, many Western scientists became interested in the Buddhist quality of equanimity. The emotion researcher Paul Ekman for instance published several conversations with the Dalai Lama about “emotional awareness” that explore how to deal with overwhelming emotions. Other psychologists such as Daniel Goleman refer to this set of human qualities as “emotional intelligence”. For a successful negotiation journey, it’s maybe enough to just remember this one thing: Whenever you ride in bumpy territory, check how much you are emotionally spinning sideways. This not only reduces the risk of accidents, but also helps you return to a state where you see a level playing field again.

Speed, posture, spin…repeat

Riding on a mental unicycle during negotiations reminds us to balance three important dimensions within ourselves to achieve good results for everyone. Monitoring our timely speed, our relational posture and our emotional spin brings us closer to a mental state of presence, interdependence and equanimity. Self-coordination is not a race we win once and then keep the trophy forever. It requires constant monitoring of our internal dynamics from a meta perspective. As with so many things in life, it is a constant learning process that doesn’t lead to a final destination but helps us improve our driving skills along the way.

Talking about life-long learning: Leo Tolstoy took his first bike ride at the age of 67 after getting instructions from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. He became a devotee and was often spotted by astonished peasants during his regular rides along the garden paths of his estate.

This blogpost is part of “The Unicycle Project” by Paul Emtsev that looks at mental factors for successful human interaction in various fields of professional cooperation.


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