Although Magnus Carlsen was friendless and bullied at school, he had a very happy home life. His parents were devoted, and he had three loving sisters. The children invented creative games and made up songs, and it wasn’t unusual for the whole family to play and sing together.
His father taught him chess at a young age, and Magnus approached it in exactly the same way as he did those games with his sisters… playfully, curiously, inventively, and intuitively. Before he was ten, he was travelling, winning tournaments, and moving up the rankings. He was a chess prodigy.
By 2013, he’d earned the right to challenge Viswanathan Anand, the World Chess Champion. But when he arrived in India for the tournament, it was clear from the moment he stepped off the plane that he wasn’t relaxed. And he certainly wasn’t feeling inventive and playful.
Whether it was due to the huge crowds that had gathered to greet him (Chess having been invented in India), the flashing cameras, the shouts and the sheer noise of it all, or Anand’s intimidating reputation, is moot. Suffice it to say, he looked spooked. And that overly-serious, worried, out-of-himself looking demeanour stayed with him as he began playing. He hung on, but the first day of the tournament was a near disaster.
That night in the hotel room, his family, who had travelled with him, began playing their favourite games. Soon, Magnus joined in. They sang songs together…and in particular, his favourite happy song from childhood that always made everyone laugh. By the end of the night, he was back to being his truest, confident, most authentic self.
The next day, he seemed a different person. His body language was relaxed; the moves he made…almost casual. He was playing. And playing inventively. He was speaking his own intuitive language to himself. A language he intimately understood.
He won. He became world champion, and holds the title to this day. And yes, it was a gigantic feat, but to our way of thinking at Common Outlook Consulting, the real feat was his ability to let go of his worry and fear and drop into his most authentic way of being.
Our takeaways? When we’re authentic, we’re relaxed. When we’re relaxed, we’re confident. When we’re confident, we excel.
An important clarification here: excelling doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. Carlsen says he makes mistakes all the time. We take heart from that. If a person of his calibre can allow himself mistakes, you and I can, too.
A chess game and a negotiation have a lot in common in that both are strategic endeavours – you have to play your own game but adapt it enough to meet the various challenges. And you almost always have to give to get. In chess, you sacrifice a pawn because you know it will serve you in the end. You do the same thing in a negotiation. You give this to get that. It’s a back and forth of give/take, take/give. You don’t view that kind of giving as a loss. Instead, you view it as simple reciprocity: one of the foundations of a successful negotiation. Life needs to be a two-way street if things are going to work in the long run (and, one could argue, even in the short run). The same is true of negotiation.
The only significant difference between chess and negotiation is that in a game of chess, there is a winner and a loser. In a negotiation, both parties can walk away winners. Indeed, it is our experience that if both (or all) key parties don’t walk away as winners, you have failed, because you will either not reach agreement in the first place, or the agreement you reached will break down at some point, sooner or later. And while it is in force, the “losing” party/parties will seek to even the score.
To us, the best thing about being your relaxed, centred, authentic self in a negotiation is that not only will it make your experience of negotiation itself positive (what a concept!), but it also dramatically increases the odds that you will reach an agreement that satisfies your true needs, and the true needs of other key parties.
Here’s to being yourself.
Tips for relaxing and being your true self:
- Prepare well, but relax the night before. Play a fun game, listen to your favourite music, get some exercise, or meet up with family or friends. And if you feel nervous the day of, go for a walk before you sit down at the negotiation table. It will lower your stress levels.
- To set up a positive frame of reference and manage anxiety, use the third-person self-talk strategy we talked about in our January/February 2019 Newsletter: The Sure-Fire One-Second Technique for Self-regulation and Self-management in Any Situation. We guarantee it won’t fail you.
- Use helpful body postures: sit or stand straight, shoulders back, in an open/expansive position. Don’t make yourself small by rounding your shoulders and closing off your body. When you make yourself small, your mind increases your body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while simultaneously decreasing the levels of the assertiveness hormone testosterone.
- Breathe well. If you are feeling nervous, before you get started, take 3-5 good breaths. What is a good breath? Breathe in for a count of 4 (drawing the air as far down into your lungs and abdomen as you can), pause for a count of 1, then breathe out for a count of 8, pause for a count of 1, and repeat.