Borrowing from ancient tradition for contemporary success
By Nicole Stinton


Experts have been telling us for years that if we want to succeed as negotiators we need to be less transactional with our clients and more relationship focused.  We should be less concerned about our position and the ‘win’ right now, and rather collaborate more in our negotiations by taking a partnering approach with our clients, investing in the longer term and understanding the bigger picture.  This starts when we “place a higher priority on discovering what a win looks like for the other person” (Harvey Robbins).

Ury and Fisher, in the well-known book Getting to Yes, remind us we must make sure we don’t get completely ‘stuck’ within what we want out of the negotiation.  That is, we should avoid being so fixed on our goal, seeing merely our own position, clinging to our narrow perspective, which we can’t begin to understand theirs.

In theory this certainly sounds effective.  We don’t need to be Ury, nor Fisher to see we can’t begin overcoming another party’s resistance until we at least understand where they’re coming from.  In reality however, when the stakes are high, tension is increasing and exasperation consumes us, it’s easy to forget.  So what can we do? 

What if we take a slightly unusual approach and in our negotiations by keeping in mind the two Chinese astrological elements of metal and water? 

Or more specifically;
Less metal,
more water.

Across the world when human beings think about metal, we typically see it as immovable and unyielding.  Yet we think the opposite of water; for most of us it is fluid and adaptable.

Chinese astrologers have identified that humans who behave with forcefulness, over-confidence and stubbornness are like the ‘metal’ element. During dialogues, these people tend to hold their ground irrefutably, unafraid of the consequences of their fixed behaviour, even if it means ultimately cutting ties with the other person.  In the negotiating room, whilst this could result in a short-term win, it will almost certainly mean the loss of the relationship long-term.

Yet astrologers also have identified that people communicating and behaving with flexibility, compassion and open-mindedness are demonstrating typical ‘water’ characteristics.  In a negotiation, this means they are likely to discuss challenges and disagreements more creatively, with less judgment, until a satisfying solution can be found, even if it’s an unexpected one.

Can we, as negotiators, remember not to get stuck like metal?  Instead to be more fluid like water?

But does water actually get where it wants to go?  If we negotiate with flexibility, compassion and open-mindedness, will we be able to achieve our goals?

Absolutely.  Like water, we may have to unexpectedly meander, go round challenges, over obstacles, shift perspectives and change direction to get to where we want to go to in the end.  By investing a little more time, taking a few more risks, keeping focused on the end-goal and not the immediate barrier (such as the client’s pushback to our suggestion), water always achieves it’s objective:  It gets downhill and arrives at the ocean.
The investments of longer time and more flexibility pay off.

In our negotiations, it’s easy to take a ‘metal’ approach.  We think we’ve got to play hard-ball; to dig-in and hang-on to what we want at all costs; not to budge, concede or give an inch; to show them who’s the boss.   This often results in either short-term, transactional relationships or in stalemates where no solution at all is reached.

How does such a ‘metal’ approach play-out in a negotiation? 

  • We don’t listen to the other person;
  • We focus on our views almost exclusively;
  • We ‘tell’ much more than we ‘ask’;
  • Tension and stress in the room increase;
  • Emotions escalate, impacting negatively on our communication and  behaviour with closed body language, raised voices and negative language; and
  • We either ‘push’ our preferences forcefully onto the other person, or we shut down, given them the ‘silent-treatment’ and withdraw. 

A ‘water’ approach in a negotiation would include:

  • Listening actively to the other person;
  • We focusing on understanding their views;
  • We ‘ask’ much more than we ‘tell’;
  • The conversation flows rhythmically, with minimal (or nil) tension;
  • Our emotions remain in-check whilst we communicate with an open body, a moderate-volume voice and inclusive-style vocabulary; and
  • The dialogue would actually be a dialogue (not a monologue or excessive silence).

Once we are listening, questioning, being flexible, open and approachable, just like a stream finding it’s way downhill over rocks and around boulders, we too can find our way forward towards our negotiation goal.  As an added bonus, let’s not forget that many Asian cultures draw from the Confucius values of balance and harmony.  Thus taking a ‘water’ approach is likely to be even more positively received by clients in this region.

        Nicole Stinto  n is a globally-experienced and qualified Trainer, Key-note speaker and Executive Coach.  She blends the old with the new, whilst bringing creative communication techniques to corporates. Nicole runs Powerful Negotiating workshops with STTS Training.