If it was your first time at the table with JS, his hard handshake, clenched jaw, and piercing cold eyes would have sent the message that the coming talks were likely going to be a challenge. And if you’d sat across from him in the past, you knew this as fact, for you’d learned he viewed a negotiation table as a battlefield. He didn’t care how he treated people; he didn’t care whether they approved of his tactics—he only cared about winning.
Here’s the way one of our close colleagues described her experience:
“It was my bad luck to accept an invitation to have dinner with him before the talks began. Given his reputation, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience; I found him to be quite charming and a good listener. But when we met at the negotiating table the next day, it was as if a switch had been flicked. Gone was that person I’d had dinner with. This person was ruthless.”
“He dismissed my proposals and scoffed at the points I made. He took maximum control at every stage of the process and held on to the lines he’d drawn in the sand. He wasn’t simply a bully; he knew his stuff ‒ I’ll give him that. He was lawyerly in his research; he’d obviously studied the smallest details of similar negotiations and agreements, and he used that information to beat down anything I put forward.”
“The change in him was so unexpected compared to the previous evening’s dinner; it threw me off my game. It wasn’t until I was tossing and turning in bed that night that I had a chance to really think about what had happened. That was when I realized our conversations at dinner had been about my interests, my thoughts, and my experiences at the negotiating table. Flattered, I’d let myself believe that the people who had told me stories about him had simply not been able to connect with him in the way I had. I’d become overly confident and full of good feelings about the negotiations that lay ahead. Here I’d thought we were laying the kind of groundwork that would smooth the talks, only to realize he’d invited me for dinner so as to assess an opponent: to discover my hot buttons and my weaknesses. Let’s just say I completely underestimated his desire to win, and that he’d played me.”
Two years later, policy changes had made it necessary to renegotiate some of the points in that original agreement, and it was with more than a little trepidation that our colleague sat down at the table with JS again. “Believe me,” she said, “after that fiasco with him, I prepared like crazy; I was determined never to be caught off-guard like that again by anybody.
Lo and behold, he caught me off-guard.
He was collaborative, friendly, and he consistently went out of his way to find solutions that would work for both of us. There was still the occasional flash of hardness in his approach, and his speech was sometimes clipped, but it seemed to me something fundamental in him had shifted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a change in a person’s behaviour as there was in his. I was suspicious the whole way through, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did. The deal we reached was genuinely a win-win. I was pleased, but perplexed.
When agreement was reached, he asked me to join him for a celebratory drink. I could no longer contain my curiosity and confusion, so as soon as we sat down, I told him about my experience with him two years ago and described the huge contrast between that and what happened this time around. What happened? I asked.
He frankly and freely told me that ‘Yes, indeed’; there had been a change in him. Something significant had happened in his life that brought this about. He’d had a heart attack since I last saw him… not a big one, but enough to make him sit back and take stock of himself and his life. He went on to say: ‘I was an only child, but my parents put themselves first. I wasn’t part of their team; I couldn’t rely on them; I never seemed important to them. I mean, what parent forgets their only child’s birthdays?’
So he took charge of himself. He became autonomous, untrusting and even resentful of others. All his pursuits? Individual. ‘I found team sports in school impossible,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t bear not being in charge. It was the same in my career… I needed to control every situation I was in by whatever means I could. It wasn’t until I had the heart attack, and talked to my doctor and then a counselor, that I understood the effects of my upbringing and the tremendous strain I’d put on myself. I know it sounds odd, but I’m glad I had the heart attack. It drove me to change… to become the person I really was… to become truly powerful, and for the first time in my life, to begin allowing myself to truly connect with others. Everyone should be as lucky.’