Opinion

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Jo Haigh did not hone her negotiation skills in business. Rather, it was her children who taught her...

I have spent most of my professional life negotiating something or other, be it the purchase or acquisition of a company, or the terms around a new financial lending instrument.

Having attended in my career a number of high profile training classes in negotiation skills, and even teaching the odd group of people, I consider myself fairly skilled in this area. But, ironically, I honed my real skills many, many years ago, not in the boardroom but in the playground and across the kitchen table.

It’s my children who have taught me how to negotiate.

As babies, my children could only communicate in a limited manner. Crying was soon learned to illicit a certain response, as was smiling and giggling. Surprisingly, my own children also quickly learned that my then husband was more resilient to the cries, whereas I was much quicker to take action to feed, cuddle, change the nappy or frankly do whatever was needed to stop the noise. This was nothing to do with his lack of caring skills; rather, his tolerance levels were clearly greater than mine (and still remain, so I believe).

As such, the children all learned very quickly who was the softer touch and this was before they could even vent the words "mumma" and "dada".

Did my tiny babies actually recognise something I now know to be very important: that it’s not real bargaining power that matters but rather that one side believe the other side possesses such power?

I'm not suggesting this is a sure win negotiating tactic but persistence certainly has its merits at the right time. A critical strength for any negotiator is confidence. Babies and children, unless and until it is bashed out of them by super critical parents, have no other experiences that can compromise their self-beliefs. I have always told my children they can do anything and be anything and they have grown up super confident. Even when things don't quite go their way, they remain confident enough that any slips are just slips, and that they can recover and remain fabulous negotiators.

Negotiating is a tough and often long road; my resilience has seen me through some very difficult periods. Children are generally born with huge personal resilience. Watch a child fall off their bike or swing and by and large with a few cuts and bruises they are back to play very swiftly.

My own children, and friends' children, by and large have coped with difficult divorces. Personally, I lost my mother at 16 - a very difficult time. But I can honestly say this terrible experience has made me not only resilient, but also much more pragmatic about troubles than I may have been in other circumstances.

Other observations that now have an analogy in my business world include:

  • Understanding that negotiation isn't about capitulation, it's about finding a mutually acceptable solution;
  • Taking time out to reconsider or just calm down is hugely important; don't be rushed into compromises or quick decisions; and
  • Finally, I have realised that sometimes things can't be negotiated and it’s time to walk away from a situation that is intractable.

So thanks, kids.

Jo Haigh is partner at fds Corporate Finance and Cracking Boards. She is the winner of the Sunday Times NED of the year award, and her latest book, "The Keys to the Boardroom: how to get there and how to stay there", is due for release October 2013. You can reach her at jo.haigh@fdscfs.com.

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