On this episode of the Learn to Lead Podcast, I interviewed Moshe Cohen, who has been a professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business for over 20 years. He is the author of Collywobbles, a book focused on helping people unlock their potential to negotiate more effectively.
He is also the founder of The Negotiating Table. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am actually a former student of his during my time as an evening MBA student at Boston University.
I’m going to kick us off with the fact that I personally am fascinated by the subtitles that authors choose for their books so I wanted to ask you about yours, but I guess I have to ask you about the title. Why did you go with Collywobbles?
In my 20 plus years of teaching negotiation, one thing I’ve observed the most is that we can teach people skills, we can teach people strategies, people can prepare and then they go to negotiate and they lose it. Negotiations end up being a very nerve-wracking process for people both when they go to negotiate and in anticipation of negotiating. The term “collywobbles” is an archaic British term that means those butterflies you get in your stomach when you’re about to do something that makes you nervous or anxious. It seemed like the perfect title for the book.
Definitely a perfect title. Let’s move on to the sub-title which is “How to negotiate when negotiating makes you nervous”. A two-part question, why do you think negotiating makes us nervous? What can we do about it?
Negotiation makes us nervous for a bunch of reasons. The first one is that we associate a lot of fear with negotiation. You can think of the fears that people bring into their negotiations on three levels. One is we have a fear of tangible hurt. If I negotiate too hard, I might lose the deal entirely. If I try to get too high a salary I might lose the job completely. The other one is a fear of damaging relationships. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I want to negotiate for promotion but I’m afraid of damaging my relationship with my boss.”
We also have a fear of emotional hurt. We have a fear of rejection and it feels bad when things don’t go well. In addition, negotiations involve things that tend to amplify those fears. It involves things like conflict. A lot of people don’t like conflict because conflict amplifies those fears and therefore makes it even harder for them to negotiate. Negotiations by definition are also uncertain and uncertainty makes us nervous. Finally, very often we’re negotiating in a position where we feel like we’ve got less power than the other person and now we get really nervous.
For all of these reasons and more people get really nervous when they go to negotiate. When that nervousness happens ahead of time in anticipation of the negotiation, people shut down to the point where they don’t actually even try. Then, even if they do try, something happens and they end up rushing through their negotiation or they end up capitulating and it’s really their emotions that get in the way. What I thought is if we’re going to be effective at helping people negotiate better, we need to focus on helping them manage their emotions simultaneously when using their skills and strategies.
That’s a wonderful jumping-off point and we’re definitely going to go back and talk about some of the things that appear in the book, and that you’ve learned from your years of teaching negotiation, but I want to start with your origin story and I think it’s a bit fascinating. If I have it correct you went from physics to engineering to business to becoming a mediator to academia.
Additionally, as a kid, you grew up in two different countries, so a lot of things in flux. How did the cultures you grew up in and the professional journey you took between many different disciplines impact the leader and maybe the professional that you are today?
I did grow up in two countries. I was born in Israel and I moved here when I was 4, moved back to Israel, moved here, moved back to Israel, and moved here. Up until I was 25, I never lived in the same house for more than four years. I think you learn a few things from that. One is you learn to be pretty self-reliant because you don’t have a comfortable environment and a comfortable support structure to do that in. The second thing is you learn to be adaptable. Wherever you find yourself, you figure it out and you learn how to deal with that environment. What I found as someone who has started my own, has been running it for a long time, is that kind of adaptability is essential if you’re going to survive the ups and downs of what happens every day.
In terms of the professional journey, I started off in physics because I liked science in high school and it turns out physics in college was a whole other thing. After that, I realized I didn’t want to stay there. I went into engineering because that was a natural offshoot and I could actually get a job as an engineer with a physics degree. Then I thought I’d stay in it, but over time I found I was more interested in the people than in the engineering, so I decided to go into management.
Like you, I went to BU’s MBA program at night. In the course of doing my MBA, thinking I was going to go into management, I discovered negotiation and mediation. I fell in love and have been there ever since. Most people who mediate add some other things to their mediation practice; teaching was very natural for me. At some point, BU invited me back in to teach. That’s the short version of the story.
Let’s build on that. You’ve had over two decades as a professor and the two disciplines you focus on are leadership and negotiation. What are common themes between those two disciplines?
I’d say the first one is listening. If you observe the best negotiators, they spend twice as much time listening as they do talking. If you observe good leaders, they spend a lot of time listening to the people they’re leading and that teaches them how to lead them more effectively. If you’re going to inspire someone to follow your vision, you need to understand what inspires them. You need to listen to your followers. Similarly, as a negotiator, if you’re going to come to an agreement with someone else, you need to understand what motivates them. You need to understand their interests. The only way you can do that is by listening to them.
I mentioned in the introduction and we’ve talked about it a little bit, that I had the pleasure of attending your class, and the exercise from your class that has, without a doubt, impacted my life and my career more than any other was called the “No Exercise”. Can you describe that for our audience?
Absolutely. It is one of my favorite exercises and the one that I hear the most about years later for my students. In this exercise, I send them out in the world with a goal of asking people for stuff till they get 10 people to say no to them. They can ask for anything. They can ask for money, they can ask for favors, discounts, upgrades, freebies special treatment, you name it, they can ask for it.
The interesting thing is that when they go out in the world and start asking for stuff, they discover that it’s really hard to get 10 people to say no to you. In fact, my students’ biggest complaint about exercise is that they keep asking for more and more ridiculous things and people still say, yes, I’ve had students who had to ask 30 people before they got 10 people to say no.
It turns out to be a very impactful exercise because first of all, they realize they’ve been leaving a lot of value on the table by not asking. Secondly, they realize that if they ask, the other person will either say yes or they say no, or they counter with another offer, but generally they don’t hate them. They lose their fear of asking because they realize that they build up, they ask so much in their own minds, but it’s a much bigger deal for them than it is for the other person. They get a whole bunch of really fun stuff.
You talked about that fear, and something about that exercise and other exercises that we did during the class definitely helps to alleviate some of that fear. What’s something else that leaders can do to be better negotiators apart from taking a class or reading a book on it, which I would highly recommend but what are some things that we can think about or do or institute in our daily lives that would make us more effective negotiators?
Probably the two words that I’ve spoken most frequently to people I’ve coached in negotiations are “Slow down”. One of the things that happens to us when we negotiate is that we get caught up in the moments. We get excited, we get nervous, whatever it is, we start speeding up and that’s when we start making big mistakes. We accept things we shouldn’t accept. We offer things we shouldn’t offer. We try to close deals before it’s time to close them. If you slow down, you give yourself time to respond rather than react.
Our minds have emotional centers that cause us to react and they have cognitive centers that cause us to respond. The emotional ones are faster and more powerful than our thinking brains. We need to give our cognitive brains some time to catch up and in order to do that, we need to slow down. That’s the first thing I would say. Try to develop more of an awareness of what’s going on with you in a negotiation. If you’re getting to the point where your heart’s racing and you can’t breathe, it might be a good time to take a break in the negotiation because chances are any decision you make is going to be a decision that you might regret.
There are some terms that will always stick with me from your class and one is BATNA. Can you talk about some of the things that maybe if you’ve never taken a class in negotiation, you might not be thinking of, or you might be thinking of, but you might be not be putting words to a concept that could help you in these levels of conversation as a professional?
BATNA is certainly one of them. BATNA is not a word I made up. It was written by Roger Fisher and Will Ury in their Getting to Yes, which was published way back in 1980. It simply means your best alternative. It’s what you’re going to do if you don’t come to an agreement with the other party. That’s actually a very important thing to think because in every negotiation there’s a possibility that you won’t be able to come to an agreement with the other party, and then you’re going to have to do something else.
Now, the person who has the most power in a negotiation is the person who needs the agreement less. In order to assess how much power you have, you need to understand what you’re going to do if you can’t come to an agreement with the other party. Researching your alternatives, thinking them through understanding the costs and benefits of each of your alternatives, really getting some data to be able to measure what those alternatives look like, gives you the information you need to make rational decisions.
Because if you misjudge your alternatives, you’re going to make bad decisions. You’re going to accept agreements you should have walked away from and you’re going to walk away from agreements you should have accepted. That is definitely one of the things that I want you to think about. The other one is interests. You see, when we’re negotiating, we make offers to the other party.
We hear demands from the other party. Those are our positions. Those are the things that we say to each other when we negotiate. If all we talk about is the position, then the negotiation ends up being a very competitive back and forth that leads to compromises that often don’t make anybody happy and don’t really create a whole lot of value. If, instead, you ask questions and try to find out what’s driving the other party – what are the needs, motivations, and fears that they’re trying to deal with on the other side of the table? And also understand what your interests are in the negotiation.
Then you can create solutions that maximize your interests, but also meet theirs and both get a lot for yourself, but also create a lot of value for both parties – and that helps relationships in the long run as well.
One question that we get frequently from listeners is: What do we on the outside not understand about your industry? After this question, I want to talk about your time as a mediator. You can take the question either way, as a professor or as a mediator. What do we not understand about what it takes to be successful in that role?
I think that what people don’t understand is the role of emotions. I think that there is way too much emphasis on learning strategies, learning skills, tactics, tricks. If you read some of the negotiation books out there, and there’s a lot of good ones, that’s what they focus on. Say the following phrase, ask the following question. The truth is that all that breaks down if you’re not managing your emotions and you forget the phrase that you’re supposed to say, or if you’re not managing the other person’s emotions.
There’s a lot of psychology to both negotiation and mediation.
What’s the lesson that you’ve learned over your years in the field of mediation, about human nature, or how people operate, that has really maybe changed the way you operate in your life or that you lead in your own life?
Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I don’t know anything. When I’m talking to a couple of parties who have come to me for mediation, usually within three or four sentences from each of them I feel like, “Oh, I know what this dispute’s about.” Immediately I have solutions that could help them. Well, turns out, I don’t know anything. They’ve only really scratched the surface in terms of giving me a bare sketch about what their dispute is about, and that there are interests that I won’t hear about for a few hours until they start trusting me and get more comfortable.
It is those underlying interests that really drive their decisions, and are really going to come to something that is adoring, sorry, something that’s going to be a durable and lasting agreement. Understanding that you don’t know, understanding that your role is to be open-minded, and to listen and to find out and be curious. That is a real lesson that I both use as a mediator, and that I teach when I teach new mediators – to suspend your judgment because you really don’t know much.
Before we pressed record on this episode, we were talking a little bit about the challenge, but also the opportunity, with virtual communication, virtual teaching, virtual communication more broadly. When you think about negotiations, or professional conversations, meetings, we’re all going to be doing a lot more of it virtually than maybe we would have been doing two or three years ago. Any specific skills or tips or tricks or things to think about when the negotiation or the communication is virtual?
I want to go in two directions about that. The first one is that your bandwidth of information goes down. Face to face, you get to see body language, you get to observe all of the nuance. Very little of your communication actually involves the words that the other person is saying. Once we go to a video, you still have some of that but there’s a lot that is hidden from you.
Once we go to phone, even more is hidden. If we go to email, all we have is the words. Realizing that your bandwidth of information goes down, and in particular, your non-verbal and visual information goes down, means you have to become more reliant on picking out tone, picking out the nuance of the words people say. You’ve got to get more skilled at the verbal part of it, because you simply don’t have those other tools.
The second direction I want to go in is that none of these are good or bad. Each of these ways of communicating has advantages and disadvantages. In person, you’ve got the most ability to see things and the broadest spectrum of communication. On the other hand, let’s pretend that you’re the kind of person who gets really nervous and your face turns all red, well, better to negotiate by phone, because you can manage that.
You don’t have to worry about how you’re appearing to the other side, what they’re reading into it, how embarrassed you feel. Instead of saying one is better than the other, I would say, look at the strengths and challenges of each. Then look at what you and the situation require. Then pick of those, the best form of communication that matches between the needs of the situation and what you need.
Given your role as a professor and a mediator, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about when you first meet someone. Something that we hear from a lot of the leaders who listen to this show is that first interaction with somebody new is critically important, and it makes them nervous in the same way negotiation makes individuals nervous. When you’re preparing to meet with somebody, or when you’re preparing for a negotiation, what does preparation look like for you? Then what questions do you like to ask or what are you looking for in the first interaction with somebody?
Wow, that’s a great question and very complex. In terms of preparation, if I’m preparing for a negotiation, there’s a ton of stuff you want to prepare. You want to find out as much about the context of the situation, you want to gather a lot of data and information. You want to know as much as possible about the person you’re negotiating with. If you’re negotiating with them at a company you want to know as much about the company as possible, about the product, about their customers. About their internal relationships. It involves an awful lot of research.
To address your second question, what am I looking for when I meet someone, is something that we can connect around. And that’s going to be different in different situations, but I try not to be too judgemental in that first moment. I know that I’ve made bad impressions on people. I’ve made good impressions on people.
Some of it has to do with just how I’m feeling that day or some circumstance that happened right before. I try not to judge people when I first meet them and just give opportunities for genuine, authentic connections to happen. Wherever that goes, I’ll follow it. What I’m looking for someone to do is just be themselves.
I remember one time I was interviewing a student who was applying to BU. I asked her, “So tell me about yourself.” She started reciting what was a memorized script. I stopped her about 30 seconds into it. I said, “Listen, I don’t know you at all, drop the script and just talk to me.” That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for authenticity. I’m looking to find out who they are a little bit, see where we connect, and then go from there.
That is a wonderful spot to shift to the final two rapid-fire questions that I get to ask all of our guests. The first one is this: If you could describe your leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
The final rapid-fire question is: What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
It was actually from my mother and it was, “Make lemonade. You never know what life throws at you. When you have lemons you make lemonade.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.