I've learned a lot about negotiation in the past year.
I've pitted my wits against an extremely complex character. He can be cooperative one moment, then stubbornly committed to his own needs the next. He's hard to read, capable of playing high-level mind games, and he's pushed my negotiating skills to the limit.
Welcome to life with a pandemic pup.
Like so many other families, in the depths of a coronavirus lockdown, we bought a puppy. Ours is a cavapoo (half Cavalier King Charles spaniel, half poodle) called Enzo.
He's our first dog, and I knew we had plenty to learn. But it never occurred to me that negotiation would be so high on the skill list.
After all, we're a loving family with a warm house and an unfussy garden. He'd just be glad to be here, and happy to fit in, right? And if he ever got a bit above himself, my firm but fair authority would quickly bring him into line.
That's not exactly how it went.
Don't get me wrong: it's not all been a battle. Enzo really does seem to like living with us. And we love having him here. Often he'll happily go along with whatever we want to do.
Until he doesn't.
Like when he's found an interesting piece of trash in the street, and doesn't see why he should drop it before he joins me on the sofa. Or when I'm deep in my work, but he's determined that it's time to play.
It's in moments like these that my negotiation skills have been tested – but also, I like to think, trained – by my new best friend.
We all need to know how to negotiate. As my colleague Rachel Salaman says in the latest Expert Voices podcast, "So much of life is negotiation – at work and at home. It all involves some level of maneuvering and bargaining until there's a plan that everyone can agree to."
I listened to Rachel's podcast with Enzo sleeping soundly by my feet. And I'm now confident that I've developed some valuable and highly transferable skills this year.
When Enzo gets around to listening, I'm sure he'll be happy too – because our experts' key themes are very much in tune with the lessons he's taught me.
I learned early on to head off arguments by making our interactions as positive as possible. I try to reward everything Enzo does right. And if I have to stand my ground on something, I offer him something else that he'll be happy with.
That approach chimes with advice from influential businesswoman and author Robin Koval. "If you're not able to agree with what someone is saying," she tells Rachel, "then you need to find a way to tell them that, but also put something positive into the mix."
For Corey Kupfer, author of "Authentic Negotiating," clarity is key. "It's clarity on your objectives," he says. "Exactly what do you want on every major term on this deal?"
That's something I didn't do in the early days with Enzo – and I paid the price. I just wanted him to be good, to stay calm, to let me work… but I wasn't clear about exactly what that would look like. So how was he supposed to know? And how would I ever guide him to do what I wanted?
I've learned to have things like toys, blankets and water ready for Enzo before he even realizes he needs them. I've worked on my emotions, too, so that I stay calm. And, thanks to some advice from a behaviorist, I've now got plenty of tactics to try if things start going wrong.
According to Alexandra Carter, a negotiation trainer with the U.N., it's careful preparation like this that guards against what she calls a "one-car accident." A negotiation that fails, she says, usually does so "… well before the other person. It starts with you."
And Corey Kupfer agrees. "Take the time to prepare, and be willing to do the hard work for any negotiation that counts."
Enzo and I know that all-or-nothing negotiations tend to leave both parties dissatisfied (and sometimes with precious clothing items badly ripped). As Robin Koval puts it, "Don't think about 'my slice versus your slice' and 'if you get something I don't get something.'"
Now, when we're deciding how long a game's going to last, or which direction to take for a walk, we're both willing to give a little ground – to find a way that we can both be happy.
I'm sure Enzo and I will keep refining the way we negotiate. And that's essential, according to Alexandra Carter. She describes negotiation as "steering relationships," often over the long term.
On the surface, you may be bargaining over deadlines or costs (or the difference between a chewable toy and a valuable piece of home furnishing). But, as Alexandra sees it, you're also "… teaching somebody how to value you, how to think about your business or how to think about you personally."
One theme from the podcast resonated with me particularly strongly. That, if you've negotiated well, you won't just feel good about what you've achieved. You'll also feel proud of how you've done it.
At the start, I could usually get Enzo to do what I wanted – eventually. But I wasn't always happy with how I got him there.
But now, thanks to positivity, clarity, preparation, and good old-fashioned give-and-take, we've got so much better at making deals that we're both OK with.
So it's not just him being a "good boy." I'm finally feeling happy with my behavior, too.
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What's your approach to negotiation? What works – and what doesn't – when you need to make a deal? Please share your experiences, insights and tips, below.
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Aww, bless, Jonathan - what a marvellous blog!
And I can relate. Helmuth (my rottweiler), knows exactly how to "negotiate" a treat out of me. I mean who can resist the puppy dog look combined with doing something smart and a cocked head as if to say, "See? See what I did? SEE WHAT I DID?" with a wagging tail and "Rottie smile" to complete the picture!
Seriously though, I've often said if you want to learn more about yourself, commit to training your dog. You'll be surprised... You have to be patient, refine your techniques, learn how your dog "negotiates", be consistent and know what the objective is. If not, the dog is firmly in control and busy training you!