Stephen Douglas




United States


Public Administration


Jan 2016 - Sep 2017

By Stephen Douglas

Why you can never win in Oxford negotiations (Part I)

In our Oxford University Executive MBA elective “Negotiating Strategy and Practice”, we conducted eight different negotiations based on case studies with different sets of and coalitions of our classmates. The results were monitored using software. Each of us rated the others whom we had been negotiating with on several continuums (yielding; compromising; forcing; problem solving; and avoiding), according to our perceptions of their behaviour during negotiations.

Before and after each, Owen Darbishire provided frameworks and insights that helped us understand better the different kinds of bargaining situations we are involved in whatever we do – whether negotiating with our spouse, our children or our (potential) business partners (Another insight: those in doomed relationships tend to avoid sharing conflicting perceptions of their interests in the mistaken belief that “avoiding” is a sustainable problem-solving strategy.)

One error many of us made during the week was to stick rigidly to whichever stereotypical negotiation tactics we were drawn to, by dint of our favourite movie characters’ style; national customs; personality traits; industry norms; pride; sense of self; immediate emotional exigencies; or simply our own particular lenses of gender filtering reality in ways which actually harm our interests.

Many of us tried to “anchor” a negotiation around an inflated price or controversial issue at the very beginning of a negotiation. If the price stated was too high or the issue too incendiary, then, this often had the effect of unbalancing the difficult dance between trust and its opposite that runs through any negotiation like a lubricant. When one side or the other lied or misled about their position this too undermined the potential to identify what they could give up which was of value to their counterpart but which was of little value to them – the key to successful integrative bargaining.

Learning to adapt one’s position during a negotiation according to a real-time analysis of one’s dynamic interests and one’s negotiating counterparts’ interests is also key.

Another insight we picked up during the week was the phenomenon of exaggerating the strength of our counterpart’s position. When one holds a weak hand, one tends to project unto the other commensurate strength. Often one’s counterpart holds just as weak a hand as one does (or an even weaker position!). The delicate shuffle towards a deal that satisfies adequately all sides’ interests can be impacted negatively, if one’s understanding of the other is skewed by such cognitive biases.

Of the eight negotiations we completed, I was on the winning side in three of them. I said this to a friend who’d recently done a negotiations’ course at Harvard. She reminded me that you don’t “win” negotiations.

This truth was borne out again and again in our class. Often one of us who had done astoundingly well by comparison to others in the same position felt astonishingly dissatisfied. The reverse was also true. There seemed to be scant correlation between actual performance and one’s feelings afterwards!

It brought me back to what we learned so many modules ago in Marketing Strategy: all dissatisfaction is a function of a mismatch between expectation and experience.

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  • Sola Afolayan

    Thank you for whetting my appetite, Stephen! I will choose ‘Negotiation, Strategy and Practice’ as one of my electives, too. Can’t wait! – EMBAJ17 Student