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The Art of Negotiation: Maria Ploumaki (Full Transcript)

Maria Ploumaki at TEDxYouth Zurich

Full text of thought-leader Maria Ploumaki’s talk: The Art of Negotiation at TEDxYouth Zurich conference. In this talk, Maria describes the most important skills behind successful negotiation, and how to develop and master such qualities.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Maria Ploumaki – Thought leader

I did math for the first time when I was four years old. I used to think… I used to see the world with numbers and figures. And I used to think that everyone else sees the world that like I did.

However, I noticed quite soon that every single one of us sees the world through a different lens. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Now I’ve spent more than two decades analyzing what make people take decisions. And today I will give you the three elements and three tips. Three pieces of advice that influence the decision-making process and negotiations.

But first I’ll start with a story.

In my family, we used to have some uncommon pets, especially my grandfather. So that’s me with a baby buck. Now bucks, when they grow older, they look a little bit different and they get some interesting horns.

So my father was asked to take the buck and put him in the barn. Now my father knows absolutely nothing about such animals. He’s an electronics engineer. He’s Greece’s champion in golf and he’s never dealt with them. So he tries to push the buck in the barn and of course the buck is resisting. So then he thought it would be a brilliant idea. He grabbed him by the horns and tried to push him in.

So the buck resisted. He lowered his head. He overthrew my father on the air and he landed him flat on the ground.

So then my mother comes in and she takes the buck by the beard and gently leads him in the barn. What my father did not know is that bucks have one sensitive point and that’s a beard. Every negotiation is a different animal.

It’s not the strongest. It’s not the smartest or the most experienced one that wins. It always depends… it depends on the situation, timing and circumstances.

As Nye mentioned in his book Soft Power, in order to understand who holds the high cards you need to know what kind of game you’re playing and how the value of these cards may be changing.

Now I see negotiations as a combination lock, as a three-digit combination lock with rotating dials. The first rotating dial is logic, then emotions and repetition. As Aristotle said 3000 years ago, it’s Ethos, Logos and Pathos.

So let’s start with Logic. Logic is the facts, the numbers, the reasoning process. And we think that if we stick to the facts, it will help make things clearer so that people will be able to understand and accept us better our position.

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However, remember perception can change the way people see things. Now this is a red Apple, it’s an undisputed truth. However, to a Christian, it symbolizes the original sin. To a mother, it is a healthy snack and to a young girl, it’s a fruit snow-white egg before going to magic sleep.

So we no longer see an Apple. We see a sin, a choice and a dream, depending who’s looking at it and what their expectations are.

People tend to make decisions not so much with what they think, but based on how they feel. And going to the emotions part, emotions are made by culture, by gender and by perception.

On gender alone, Brizendine wrote on her book, The Female Brain that women have 11% more neurons in their brain function for language and thinking than men do. However, men respond more physically to their environment than women do. If you say the word run, the muscles on a man’s legs will actually twitch.

Now on culture, in Finland, you’re expected to go to the sauna together and drink alcohol. By drinking alcohol, you prove your integrity because it’s difficult to pretend when drinking.

Now in Japan, on the other hand, here it’s very well-defined. So it’s either shown in the way people are sitting in a train wagon and this is how respect is shown.

This is why it is so important to always understand social context. And there was one man who was excellent in doing this. Nelson Mandela created a long lasting reputation. He said that:

If you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head. If you speak to him in his language, you speak to his heart”. 

– Nelson Mandela

When he was in prison, he did not only study the law, but he also studied Africans, which was the language of his guards and white South Africans. And the reason he did this is because he understood that effect change facts would not be enough. He would need to reach the heart of his enemies, as well as his followers.

Now, Nelson Mandela created the long-lasting reputation that we all know up to this day. When I was in Oxford, my professor, Timothy Morris, referred to reputation as the gap between expectations and experience. And he created a reputation J-curve, which is in essence, a parabola. What it shows is that more reputation brings more reputation.

So reputation is in essence, a long-term investment with a compounding effect. It starts with a low return. And by continuing to invest in it, we accumulate a vast amount over time, which we can turn into goodwill.

So I will give you three tips of how to invest in negotiations:

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The first one is: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.

As tempting as it is to rely on past experience, techniques, or even advice, every negotiation will be different. There will be surprises.

Some months ago, I was facing a very difficult situation and I was discussing with a friend of mine where I told her, “I can never be sure even when things look absolutely positive, this is the most dangerous moment.”

The moment you feel comfortable is the moment you’re in trouble because you stop developing and you create a blind spot. The reason I pick this image is because reeds are brilliantly made. They have this elastic structure that helps them bend no matter how hard and in which direction the wind blows. And when the wind has passed, they’re immediately bouncing back.

Them being not rigid helps them not break and always being able to be there and to bounce back. So by implementing this rule, even though sometimes I have been surprised, I have never been left without options because I have considered this possibility along with every other.

Now, the second advice is: BE TOUGH TO THE CAUSE, BE KIND TO THE PEOPLE.

One of my mentors in the U.S., Jeff says that “If you have one person believing in you, you can change the world.”

And Maya Angelou, who is a mentor of Oprah, said that “People will forget what you said. They will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Let’s not confuse facts with people. Many classical economic theories consider humans are purely logical decision makers. And what they support is a purely rational self-serving decision-making leads to the best possible results.

However, as demonstrated by the Prisoner’s dilemma, in competitive scenarios, this is patently false. Cooperation and furthermore anticipating cooperation leads to far better results for everyone than predicted by the Nash equilibrium.

Now I’ll give you a story. It was a coincidence that I heard the similar story last week for the same problem for two different companies. In the first company, both companies were facing a difficult problem. In the first company, the manager was treating the employees poorly and he was not communicating the problems enough and he was giving all the negative sentiments that he had.

And one of his employees left. She went to a different company and she had a brilliant career. Some years later, this manager lost his job and he went back to her to ask for help, to connect for an opportunity.

Now, in the other company, the manager communicated everything early enough. And he tried to help his employees go through a transition phase and to liaise with everything that he could do to make their life easier and better.

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And the surprising effect was that when one of his employees left to go to another company, he told him, “You know what? I like you, there is a new position in my new company. And if you’d like, you could also join.” And that’s exactly the beauty of cooperation. It takes us out of our four walls and it gives us access to more dimensions.

Now every negotiation has evolved into a series of discussions and mediations between the same or similar stakeholders, which is in essence relationship management, where every action will bring a reaction.

And this is my third and final bit of advice: ALWAYS ACT, NEVER REACT.

A friend of mine a couple of years ago, was discussing with an investor about a social entrepreneurship project that he was leading. And the investor replied that the project was not disruptive.

Now, the moment he heard it, he immediately started defending himself and his project, and trying to convince him just how disruptive the project was. When in essence, the selling point was immense social impact that would generate in a country that lacks entrepreneurship and business development.

But the moment he got one negative reply, he became defensive. He lost his focus. And he wasn’t able to think clearly.

When you find yourself in a defensive position, always stay calm and reposition yourself. Imagine it like you’re walking towards the destination, we’re going there. And someone comes from the side and pushes you. And immediately you lose balance. And if you continue, you will start going somewhere else.

What you should do is that the moment that this happens, you just stop, stay calm and reposition yourself, continuing towards your target. It is like you give to someone a remote control and they can push all of your buttons. And they can show and have one level down in creativity or two levels up in being upset.

Take the remote control away from them. Know your buttons so you cannot be pushed.

What people do is their choice, how you react to their actions is your choice. You will be dealing with negotiations in every aspect of your life, from personnel to professional, from salary and sales, to the social environment.

Now remember: Expect the unexpected. Be tough to the cause. Be kind to the people. And always act, never react.

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

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

Margaret Neale on Negotiation – Getting What You Want (Full Transcript)

Conducting Effective Negotiations by Joel Peterson at Stanford (Full Transcript)

William Ury: The Walk from “No” to “Yes” (Full Transcript)

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