Home » Negotiation Expert: Lessons from My Horse by Margaret Neale at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Negotiation Expert: Lessons from My Horse by Margaret Neale at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Margaret Neale

Margaret Neale – TRANSCRIPT

I teach negotiation. I do research in negotiation. I write books in negotiation. And I work with students and executives to help them get more of what they want from their negotiations. And one of the biggest challenges that we face in negotiations is that we view negotiations as a battle. And that battle is characterized by “I’m going to try to get stuff from you that you don’t want to give me; and I’m going to try to keep you from getting my stuff.”

And if we view negotiations as a battle, we already have a problem. I’m going to suggest that what’s more important is that we look at negotiations as an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving, looking for a solution that makes me better off, better off than my alternatives, better off than my status quo. But because there is no command and control in negotiation, I cannot force you to say “Yes.” All I can do is present proposals where you believe it is in your interest to say “Yes.”

And so, once I take that perspective on negotiation which highlights the importance of the other as well as me, so many more things open up to negotiation: whether it’s a new job – I’m trying to negotiate the terms of my employment contract – whether I’m trying to do an acquisition for my company; whether I’m in a meeting; whether I’m deciding with my spouse who’s going to take the dog out on a cold and rainy night; or whether I’m thinking about what the rules are that my offspring will have to follow and I will have to agree to when they use my car. And this is very good advice, but I am here today with a confession that I don’t always follow my very good advice. And I want to introduce you to my longtime negotiating counterpart. This is Sal.

Sal is a 15-year-old quarter horse. She is a mare. And Sal came to me as a gift from my husband. My husband was the prior owner of Sal, and he discovered, very quickly, that Sal was more horse than he could handle. So, as a solution to his problem, he thought he would just give her to me. And he did that because he thought – and he told this to me – “You two are so alike.”

And to demonstrate that, we have a picture. So this is Sal and me, but early on in our relationship. And we are about to attempt a relatively complex maneuver called the flying lead change. Look at my jaw: it’s tight, my lips: pressed. My eyes, if you can see them through the sunglasses, there’s a laser-like focus on where I need to be with my horse, and my reins have a death grip. But this is a move that requires both of us, both Sal and me. And if you look at Sal, you see she has a similar look on her face. Her jaw is tight. Look at her ears.

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Clearly, I have a goal in mind but so does she, and it might not be the same thing. But my vision was good: what I wanted us to be was good. Let me show you what I had in my head about how we might look. (Music) This is Buck Brannamon and his horse Rebel. Look at these. Look at how they move together. The smoothness with which they move across the pasture. It’s stunning – the fluidity, the dance. It’s as if this man’s brain is attached directly to this horse’s feet. This is what I wanted. That was a good goal. So, I decided, “Yes.”

And I started working hard on getting Sal to look like Rebel. And the harder and harder I pushed her, the more she got resistant, the more she got tight, the more she got anxious, the more we didn’t go forward. And it came to a head about three years ago. Two of my friends and I were in the pasture. And they took off to go do something with their horses, but I decided that Sal and I should stay and work on a particular dance step that we were trying to achieve.

And when they left, she got anxious, which is not surprising, because horses are prey animals, their herds are their source of support. And when she was left alone, she was feeling very scared. And I made, of course, my first mistake in all of this. I focused on winning, on getting her to do what I wanted rather than problem solving. And so if she saw herself alone – no support – she certainly didn’t see me as her support. What she saw was the thing that could protect her, her herd, was leaving, and now she was alone. She was isolated, and she was at risk.

And so as we continued, I tried to keep her with me, but she wanted to go with them. And what happened was because she couldn’t go forward, the only thing she could do is go up. And she reared. And I struggled mightily to get all four feet back on the ground, and I did for a moment, but soon after that, she reared again, and then a third time, and at that point, scared for my life, I bailed on Sal. I abandoned her.

Now, at this point, I had created a power struggle. And, at that moment, we were both in a struggle for our survival. Right now, you are probably thinking, “You know, you are such a drama queen. What’s a little rear?” I mean, after all, if you are my age, you remember Roy Rogers and Trigger. Right? And Trigger would rear. I remember my younger self seeing that, thinking, “I want a horse like that. I want that power, that beauty.” Or if you are much younger than me and maybe one of the few people who saw that latest movie “The Lone Ranger,” you might have seen Silver rearing, and again, power and beauty. But these are Hollywood horses, and those are tricks.

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What rearing is like in the real world? It is not beautiful. It is scary. It is dangerous. When a horse rears, they can fall over backwards. And when they fall over backwards, the rider is crushed or killed. And when they fall over backwards, they hit their head on the way down. And they are dead.

So, while rearing has this Hollywood view, in the real world, it is so dangerous. And while I know my goal, my vision was good and important, what I had forgotten was to be flexible in how I got there. And my vision was good. This is a beautiful picture. Sal and I could be … we could be wonderful together. But while I was hoping for this, this is more like Sal thought.

What Sal saw was: we were at a complete impasse. This wasn’t a win-win. This wasn’t even a win-lose. For us, we were at lose-lose. And maybe I was at the time where I had to, like my husband, Al, say, “This horse was too much for me.” And maybe give her to a rider who could do more with her, who could help her out. But I cared about this horse, and I cared about us, and I cared about our relationship. So I had to change.

After all, I’m the one with the big brain; I’m the one with the opposable thumbs. And I have all these tools. I’m the one who needed to change. So I talked to my teachers. And I went back and they said to me, “You have forgotten the most important lesson: that this relationship between you and Sal is a partnership. It’s not a dictatorship. So, you need to go back because Sal doesn’t have the language of words to make offers and counteroffers. She can’t say ‘No’ to you.”

But what Sal was doing with every fiber of her being was using her language of touch and feel to say, “No.” This wasn’t working. This wasn’t a partnership. And she was afraid. She was not being stubborn when she reared; she was fearing for her life. And so we did go back. And I could tell you I had to start all over again because I had to be the leader where she found comfort and support. Because if I were fearful, she could feel that fear through the layers of leather of a western saddle. And if I, the rider, the person in charge, was afraid, what hope did she as a prey animal have? I had to remember a lesson that I learned when I – for being an academic, is that you can’t just bull your way through things. You have to learn how to problem-solve.

But, for some reason, I hadn’t brought that lesson to Sal. And so I had to go back. I had to become that calm, confident leader that allowed Sal to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. Because horses have really two motivations: they do what they think they are supposed to do, or they do what they need to do to survive. And I had to move us out of a survival mode because nobody can learn then, and move us into a learning mode.

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Now, it’s been almost three years to the day that that happened. And Sal and I are very different. We did go back, and we moved forward with such speed this time that I’d never have predicted back then that we would ever make it to here. Now, are we perfect? No. Sal and I have good days, and we have bad days. And I make mistakes all the time. But the difference is that now Sal sees me as a source of support and comfort for her. She sees me as someone who will where good things happen, and I can keep the bad things away. And to demonstrate, let me show you a picture of Sal and me that was taken by Al last March. This was like last month.

Now I want you to notice a couple of things about this picture. Notice that there is nothing on Sal’s face; there is no rope, no reins, no bridle. Sal is behaving exactly as she chooses to behave. And notice that she is choosing. Her horse buddies are behind her in the background. She is choosing to walk away from them and with me. And look at her. She is soft; she is willing; she is calm. And look at me. I’m really different too. I am soft, and I am calm, and I am confident. So, perhaps, as you think about your next big negotiation, you might be tempted to see if you can borrow Sal for a little tune-up in how to negotiate.

But what might be more, safer for all of us is that if you just remember the lessons of Sal and me. Focus on solving the problem, not on winning the battle, because if you find yourself in a battle, in a power struggle in a negotiation, you have already lost. And the key to being able to solve problems in a negotiation is to understand your counterpart, to know what motivates them, what will influence them to move down that path of agreement with you, of their own volition.

Remember there is no command and control in negotiation; I can’t force you to say “Yes.” And remember that that works for your counterparts, whether they are human or horse. And goals are important; you absolutely need to know what a good deal is for you. But you also need to have flexibility in how to achieve that goal. And for me, this is the lesson that I must learn and relearn because too often, I choose a path to my goal because I have chosen it, not because it is the right one.

And in closing, I want to acknowledge the considerable debt I owe for becoming a better negotiator and a better human to my partner Sal. Thank you.

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