Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Art of Negotiation

You do not need to take personnel management or HR classes in an MBA course to learn the nuances of negotiation. A 3 year old child, when she cries for something she needs but feels won't be given to her in normal circumstances has perfected one aspect of it. Everyone uses negotiation skills, almost on an hourly basis, and some do it better than others. There are people who are experts at negotiating with shopkeepers, others who stand up (or bend down, if it is so necessary) to figures of authority at just the right time, some others who may be abject failures in other aspects but are masterly at instilling fear in people who may be at a disadvantage compared to them. Some who are brilliant in the boardroom, others who are the glue that holds their family together. Very few people, if any, manage all these aspects equally well.

Modern Indian urban society, especially the youth, is very often analysed in paradoxical terms with regards to their negotiating skills. Most of the news magazines will have you believe that this is a generation of go-getters who are much better informed than their parents and clear about what they want and how to get it. Yet, I know any number of young guys, with self-made parents, who are believed to be losing the 'streetsmarts' required for 'grassroot' negotiation as they have hade it 'too easy' and the focus of the urban well-to-do society is on 'soft skills'. A lot of my daily experience bears this out too. I have had the Bihari equivalent of this phenomenon, the 'lalbabua' tag implied about me too, and I would have to agree with it in retrospect. Which is slightly surprising, for I'm also known to be an aggressive and short tempered guy among my peers(again, I would have to agree with that too).

I have always had this sneaky suspicion that a lot of what qualifies as 'streetsmart' behaviour is just a euphemism for genuinely unsocial attitudes. I also know it for a fact that many people who are experts at getting seats in a crowded train, or of undercutting the rickshaw fare will the first ones to ask for mercy or worse, escape, in case you were ever to get into a street brawl with a serious chance of getting hurt. Yet, I would like to get some of their special skills too, for the times rickshawallahs try to fleece me even though I know the correct fare for the trip even before they can say 'rate card'.

Yes, with time I have learnt how to negotiate with most categories of people. Rickshawallahs remain a confounding proposition though. Some quote the night-time fare, even going as far as to show the rate card, thinking I will not be able to read Gujarati. Others finish with a boisterous "Hum to itna hi lete hain, bas'. Others still tug at your heart strings with a 'yeh aaj ki pehle savari hai' or 'arre seth chai piyoonga'. The most confusing, and irritating situation arises when they adopt the genuinely hostile stance. Now I am not the kind to back down from a fight, but a fight is different. You go into one in the full knowledge that verbal abrasion is a minimum, and physical harm on either side may be expected. No quarters given, none asked for. Not a desirable situation, yet a simple one for it affords clarity of thought. But how do you a react to someone who is trying to bluster his way into cheating you, yet you do not want to get into anything serious because the stakes are too low, or because time is usually at a premium. Should one simply pay the correct fare and walk off, matching the guy bluster for bluster(with the possibility of a prolonged altercation ensuing after that)? Or does one agree on an in-between fare, in the knowledge that the extra 5-10 bucks mean a lot more to him?

In general, how does one react in and manage a situation, when the other party is being genuinely hostile and the focus from our own side is to not match the hostility and yet to not lose out in the ensuing transaction? The answer to this question will probably determine the amount of success one has in dealings with strangers, and finding out the golden middle is of paramount importance. It is also readily noticeable that the rickshawallah is much less likely to try his antics if there is another guy, a friend, with you. Even if this other guy is obviously less aggressive than you are. Which underlines the supreme power of sheer numbers, the tyranny of the majority. And which is why most of the well remembered social leaders in history have been mass mobilisers, instead of simply being individuals with maximum personal capability/sacrifice(part of the reason why Mahatma Gandhi is better remembered than Bhagat Singh, not that I'm questioning the individual capability of the former). But i digress, more on this some other time.

I have rambled on for too long now, and not very cohesively. Hopefully, things will be better as time progresses.

Random assertion - Slash is the best lead rock guitarist of all time. Guns N Roses sound wonderful even though the vocals can be laughably bad.

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