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Great negotiators aren't handed their skills at birth. They practice and build them over the course of a career.

Masters of negotiation: born this way?

The case for self-made negotiators

By Prof. Leigh Thompson

I admit that I like Lady Gaga, but I think she has it wrong — at least when it comes to being a good (or great) negotiator. The truth is: I have never met a negotiator who was "born this way." The best negotiators I’ve met have been self-made, not manufactured by their parents.

Nevertheless, a great number of people believe successful negotiation is all in the DNA, and that negotiation, like good looks, is something you’re born with. And they also believe that try as they might, their fate won’t change.

I want to dispute this myth because it holds us back from reaching our negotiation potential. Let me try to persuade you with some evidence from management science that suggests that negotiators are not born, but instead are grown this way.

First, consider the evidence on practice and negotiation. Most people improve dramatically with negotiation training and experience. For example, in one investigation, I tracked the performance of negotiators over eight trials of negotiation and found that the learning curve for negotiators is very steep and performance improved by 10 to 30 percent as they gained experience.

Of course, certain types of practice are better than others. In one investigation, I compared four types of practice: hearing pure lecture, receiving feedback, watching experts and learning by analogy (comparing several different negotiation cases and situations). The bottom line is that anything is better than pure lecture. The most effective strategies involve simulation-based learning.

Second, consider your mindset when you approach negotiation. Do you approach negotiation as something that can be learned or something that calls for natural talent? For example, in a study, University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Laura Kray and her colleagues told some participants that negotiation skills can be learned and led others to believe that negotiation traits were largely inherited. Everybody then engaged in exactly the same business negotiation. Results: the people who believed that negotiation skills can be learned performed significantly better than those who regarded negotiation as heritable trait.

This growth mindset is important because — well, let’s face it — we cannot be in the 95th percentile on everything. So businesspeople who realize that they are not the best negotiators in the room need to treat that skill like a muscle, something that can respond to training.

Finally, once you realize that you can improve your negotiation skills, your biggest hurdle will be using that knowledge at the right time and right place. In my research, I’ve uncovered an “inert knowledge” problem, which means that most managers and leaders possess the skills they need to be an effective negotiator but don’t retrieve them when they might be most useful.

Fortunately, we’ve found a simple workaround for this inert-knowledge problem: whenever you learn a skill or strategy in a classroom or seminar or on the job, make sure that you think of at least two situations that illustrate that skill and compare those situations. By thinking about multiple situations, you make your own knowledge transferable across situations. That way, you’ll be on the right track.

Image by Donnie Ray Jones under a Creative Commons license