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The Bluff Card

nabeel qadeer
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We beat Harvard University at the World Negotiation Challenge 2011. Jun, Alex and I were representing the University of Strathclyde and had flown in to Paris to participate in the challenge that was held at the International Chamber of Commerce. It was a spectacular experience that brought many challenges, realizations and lessons with it.

It was the semi-final and we were considered as the under dogs that night. Rightly so on the outset, we were competing against Harvard University (undoubtedly one of the best business schools in the world) and the delegation seemed much more prepared than we were.

They were going with a completely scientific approach with their algorithms and pricing equations all set. On the other hand, our story was different – Alex was to put a ‘mathematical act’, Jun was to set a mode with his expressions while I was supposed to do the ‘talking’.

The biggest disadvantage that I was to face was having absolutely no knowledge about vine, the subject of the case we were to negotiate about. But, I told myself I could not let that become apparent to the other team. I had to veil my shortcoming (as it appeared for that period) by posing questions precisely about factors that I had no clue about.

As the time was coming to a close, I observed the disinterest of the panel of judges and I made up my mind. It was time to play bluff!

I questioned literally the very basics of the business model that left them startled; they were unable to re-acquire the lead.

The University of Strathclyde was declared as the winner.

The Challenge taught me techniques about settling negotiations that took me a way both in my professional and personal life.

Before going to the negotiation table, I always analyze the worthiness of the second party. And the top measure of that is the existence and strength of its vision. As I often say, clarity is essential; it should be reflective in either party’s vision, desire and action. Every time I go in for a business meeting, I prepare ‘option cards’ that outline possible strategies for negotiation exactly. Initially, my business partner whom I am good friends with didn’t understand what the ‘option cards’ meant but now he says if we convince the second party for 3 of 5 cards, we’ve done it well. :)

I usually spend the initial 10-15 minutes of a meeting discussing soft things like family, professional background and personal interests (though it might seem irrelevant at times). It allows me to understand the second party better and develop a mind map; negotiating becomes easier this way. I get to know, often quite accurately, about the factors that they would be able to compromise on and the ones they would remain steadfast on.

I believe in not letting go of flexibility in dialogue – implying good listening skills, it sets you at a better position to empathize and therefore, negotiate with the second party. An aspect of flexibility also means ability to switch positions during the process; to make a greater number of your demands accepted, it would be an effective strategy to bring the other person to a vulnerable position where he reveals a point that may be compromised on and then pull him back to a level of comfort necessary to negotiate. This is exactly how I played the ‘bluff card’ at the challenge.     

Negotiation is never a compromise. Do not play to ‘win’ but instead to create a win-win situation so the impact of the negotiation becomes sustainable and long-lasting.