Let's Just Talk... Maybe Not

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It is accepted common sense that sometimes, if you just can talk face-to-face, you can resolve everything. I have believed that at times, and have successfully used it... when the issues are a question of common language and understanding, not fundamental. For example, one time when I negotiated a contract, the messenger got in the way; I sat directly with the principal on the opposite side and resolved all of the open questions.

But there are times, especially when dealing with core issues, when talking directly face-to-face (or via any other electronic means), is a bad idea.

This was brought to light again by the Big Red Car, a.k.a. Jeffrey L. Minch, a retired officer in the US Army and excellent CEO coach. Unlike me, JLM is perfectly ready, willing and able to take on political issues; I hew a little closer to the pure business side. Unlike me, JLM has enough experience and brand not to worry about offending clients.

In a recent article, JLM embeds a clip of Charlie Rose interviewing Kissinger on the Crimean crisis. One of the key points Kissinger makes is that you often should avoid the chiefs of state speaking with each other directly, as Pres. Obama and Pres. Putin did several times last week, especially during a crisis. You see, everyone has an ego. In times of crisis or stress, the egos are particularly strong. And people in positions of power have particularly strong egos to begin with. Those egos can and will get in the way of working out a good solution, as it becomes easy to say things one can regret (but not admit) later, making the crisis worse. In these cases, it is better to use a delegate who can always back down, or even blame the superior for making them do so.

What does this have to do with business?

When negotiating a deal - an acquisition, a partnership, a new employment - the temptation is to negotiate directly, especially when an impasse is reached. Yet, in certain circumstances, that is exactly the moment not to deal directly. Having delegates, such as attorneys or consultants, work directly can help: keep the emotions out; allow people to back down; and, most importantly, allow the two parties to work together afterwards.

In affairs of state, when the crisis is over, the President of one country does not have to deal directly and daily with the President of the other. In business, once the deal is negotiated, the whole point is to have the two principals work closely together. If the negotiations were too acrimonious, even if a deal is successfully reached, it may become impossible to work closely together. The egos have clashed, and left bruises in their wake. Bad blood needs time and distance to heal.

On the other hand, when representatives handled the tough part of the negotiations, there was no need for egos to stand off against each other, and the ability to work together is vastly improved.

When you negotiate, think long and hard if you are better served doing so directly, or delegating to a trusted representative. The answer may not be what you expect.