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  • Writer's pictureDan Meeke

The Trump Card

Perhaps in the future information will be so accurate and freely available that AI, robots and algorithms will do our negotiation for us.

Until that time (if it ever comes) we are stuck with negotiation as a very human process. A process in which the nature of human interaction and our human characteristics can have both a very positive and, equally, very negative effect on both the process and the outcome.

This tells us straight away that we can’t afford to enter a negotiation without considering our own conduct and also giving thought to that of our counterpart once underway.

On the World’s political stage, diplomacy has traditionally been central to nations protecting their own interests. Amongst many definitions, diplomacy is “tact, skill or cunning used in dealing with people” which implies the act of utilising specifics behaviours to influence others and elicit particular outcomes. In other words, overriding our natural behavioural inclination and replacing it with an alternative. This comes through either mistrust of our counterpart or the recognition that their emotional needs must be managed.

Our underlying, instinctive human behaviours range from a desire to be honourable, reasonable, equitable and willing to compromise through to the deep-seated pursuit of victory and power – winning at the expense of the other party. All are hard-wired, to varying degrees, into our human characteristics but do they protect our own interests or serve our own objectives if they are allowed to dictate our interactions?

Careful management of the things we say and do is central to any negotiators skill set. Whilst I may dislike the person on the other side of the table it is rarely in my interest to allow that feeling to inform my conduct and style of negotiation. What matters to me is engaging in a manner that will produce the outcome I seek. This may require suppression of my natural emotional responses and to remain focussed on the path to a successful outcome.

Diplomacy as we knew it seems to have changed recently. The arrival of Donald Trump on the world stage has brought much of what we imagined to occur in the dark corridors of power out into the open media. Some might conclude that this benefits his nation and the the world at large as its most powerful man wears his heart on his sleeve, he is open and direct. Others may argue that Mr Trump uses a new form of diplomacy in which he seeks his own ends through more overtly aggressive stances, rather than subtle influencing, but that it will ultimately undermine US interests. Maybe Trump has a deeply developed world negotiation strategy in which he rattles his ‘twitter sabre’ to influence the expectations of his counterpart but then engages subsequently in a manner designed to put his trading partners at ease to gain a better outcome. I’ll let you decide.

Seasoned poker players are conscious of their ‘table reputation’; the perception others have of them and they way they will act. How much they speak, how personable they are, the frequency and aggression with which they play hands, the size of the bets they make in certain circumstances are all elements of the perception they seek to create. They actively choose a style in order to deliver a perception. This gives them freedom to surprise their opponents but, equally, could move them towards predictability.

With cards in his hand, I wonder what Trump’s table reputation might be. There appears to be a default Trump style but who am I to say that he doesn’t carefully plan everything he says and does. Much of the media has commented on his style using words such as “brash” and “bluff” (pardon the pun). If this is simply ‘him’ then predictability follows and it suggests that there is little pre-planned in terms of a behavioural strategy. If that suggestion were true then, furthermore, it follows that little consideration has been given to the nature of his counterpart, the circumstances and his own objectives in each case. Trump is not unknown for prompt capitulation after a late night tweet……….

Recognition of the negotiation circumstances we find ourselves in and the deployment of a style that reflects that situation is imperative to ensure that those natural, instinctive responses don’t take over and undermine our own interests. If we are to allow our natural characteristics such as equitability or, at the other extreme, our desire to compete to define the image we project then we really can’t be in control. Everyone has the ability to press this ‘override’ button but it requires careful consideration in the negotiation planning phase before we sit down at the table.

To project equanimity, calm under pressure, is a good place to start. From there we have the freedom to choose how our style might vary particular to the situation we face.

Back to the poker table; Katy Lederer wrote “The cardinal sin in poker, worse than playing dead cards, worse even than figuring your odds incorrectly, is becoming emotionally involved.” Perhaps a valuable lesson for all at the negotiation table and, equally, in the world of geo-politics.

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