Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to be a Mentalist

Everything really just comes down to noticing things.  


By paying attention to the sorts of things that others don't take the time to notice, you can achieve the extraordinary. 

This is fact and has broad applications across every avenue of your existence. 

Let us apply this concept to negotiations.  You'll recall that last week, I promised to examine the first stage of negotiations - the preparations.  Well, true to my word, we will do so in a sort of round about way.

I love chess.  

Everything about it appeals to me, from the weight of the pieces in my hand to the gratifying slap of the clock at the end of a move.

But I love the strategy most of all.  The reason for this is that a player doesn't really develop the strategy.  Really, he doesn't.  It is art and comes from inspiration both from within and without.

Just as you are reading the words right here, the pieces on the board create a narrative that dictates the actions of the strategic player.  Any move that is not in harmony with this narrative will change it and lead to defeat.  

Learning to read a chess board is an art, and those who master it become legends.

This may sound complex, but it really is very straightforward.  And it has everything to do with negotiations.

When I first began playing chess, I discovered that the game became much more clear to me when I questioned what my opponent was trying to achieve with each move.  Chess is a game that heavily involves planning, so it was logical to conclude that, like me, my adversary had goals that he wanted to accomplish, and that each move he made brought him closer and closer to his aims.  By considering the motivations for his actions, I was able to discover his plans, and was able to anticipate his intentions.  

As I became a more experienced player, I would never make my move until I fully understood my opponent's.  This is axiomatic for negotiations as well and is possibly the greatest lesson I could teach you in this post.  Always ask: 

                               "Why?  Where are they taking me with this?"

When you know what your opponent is planning, you will be able to stay one step ahead.  

But there is something else that I need to teach you, and it has everything to do with analysis of a situation and formulating a plan of attack that is in harmony with the circumstances in which you find yourself.

As we go through the process that follows, I want you to do your best to pay attention to the justification for what happens.  

In a game of chess, both sides start out with the exact same number and strength of pieces.  The difficulty of the game comes by understanding how the interaction of those pieces leads to inequality among them.  

To illustrate this, I have included a game that I played a number of years ago.  You should be able to see the moves being made in a loop in the image below.  Again, as each move is made, take a moment and ask yourself what was the motivation behind each move.  I played as White.

Brookings v. Agriniosk
Now, don't worry if you can't follow the whole game at this speed.  In fact, there is only one position that you need to understand.  It is illustrated below and was the point in the game when I read the board and discovered the strategy that it demanded that I play.

Brookings v. Agriniosk
Take a moment and read the board.  It is White's turn to move, and the board requires very specific action.  

What do you see?  

Look at the pawns in the center.  They are forming a strong chain, the base of which is defended by the White Queen.  They all occupy dark squares and are pushing into Black's side of the board.  White's strength at this point is in development and territory.  

But an analysis suggests that territory is the key.  

By taking steps to keep this territorial advantage, Black will be hard pressed to move freely about the board and White will be able to choose when and where to engage him.  

So, what strategy is called for?  

How does anyone stake a claim to their territory?  By building a fence.  In chess, pawns act as that fence.  By building a fence with pawns, White can cement this advantage in territory.  Now, if the plan is to build a fence, what pieces will be of most use - a Knight with a horse that can jump over the fence, or a Bishop which can be trapped behind it?  Obviously the Knight is the superior piece.  

In addition, because the fence will be built on dark squares, the White Bishop that moves along the dark diagonals will be next to useless.  As a result, he should be traded either for an enemy Knight (that can jump over the fence) or for the opposing dark-squared Bishop (as it can undermine the base of the fence that is built).  In addition to this, at the first opportunity, White's remaining Bishop should be traded for one of the Black Knights.  As long as the fence is built, and White has more Knights than his opponent, he will have secured the advantage of greater mobility and with it, the win.

All this analysis occurred on the move shown in the graphic above, and as you can see from the first image, the game played out exactly as the board suggested it should on the sixth move of the game.

The center was successfully clogged, the captured territory was secured, and the Knights became the key to victory.

Brookings v. Agriniosk
A glance at the above position shows that Black has been left with a Knight that has nowhere useful to go, a Bishop that is trapped behind his own fence, and a Rook that is equally useless.  White has secured a Knight deep into enemy territory and is in possession of another Knight that will, in subsequent moves, begin to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.  It is plain to see from this image that while neither side has a material advantage at this point, White has a won game.

So, what does this have to do with negotiation?  The fact of the matter is that you rely on the same analytic skills when you negotiate that you do when you form a strategy while playing chess.  However, instead of reading a position on a chess board, you take a frank look at the strengths and weaknesses of both parties and decide on the likely result of the interplay between those dynamics.

Even in situations where all appears to be evenly matched, a careful analysis of what the circumstances demand will inform the strategy that you should employ when the actual negotiations take place.  Furthermore, your decisions must be based upon accurate data.  Too often, people will lie to themselves to avoid facing unpleasant truths.  If your process does not have its basis in an honest appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of both parties, you will not achieve your aim.

Additionally, all too often, people will state their aim before it really can be known.  You must decide upon it, as in this chess game, at the appropriate time.  In the game illustrated above, this was move six.  Typically, the strategy and aims will be formed early on, but don't rush it.  Only when you know the lay of the land can you determine the sort of battle you can win.

So, in a nutshell, the process is thus:  

  • Determine what it is that you have going for you.  
  • Determine what your opponent has going for them.  
  • What are the disadvantages and weaknesses that encumber both parties?  
  • What do you want?  What do you think you can realistically get?  
  • And finally, given all the data above, what steps should you take to achieve these aims?

This week, we've talked strategy.  You have an overall idea of the process required to determine what you want and how to get it.

Next week, we will talk tactics - the nitty-gritty, hand-to-hand combat in the trenches sort of work that enables your glorious vision to be realized.

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