What You Can Learn about Negotiating, at the Dog Park

Several years ago, after decades of not being a “dog person,” I met and fell in love with a western collie from the local rescue shelter. We named him Neo, and when I was in town we were constant companions. One of his favorite things was the trip to the local dog park.

Now, our dog park is a great place—has all kinds of things for dogs to do, and plenty of room for them to run and chase everything from each other to tennis balls, Frisbees, or sticks thrown into a lake that covers several acres.

Here’s an interesting thing about the lake: many dogs, especially the retrievers (the Labs, goldens, Chesapeakes, and so on), will plunge in over and over to bring back a stick or a ball thrown into the water. Whatever the weather, it doesn’t matter how far out you throw it, how cold the water is, or how long the game goes on—they just love it!

Other dogs, like Neo, won’t go in for anything. You can plead, bribe, or push, but nothing will induce them to go beyond chest deep. You could even float a T-bone steak out there on a little raft—the dog is not going in! It’s worth noting that this is not a learned activity. It’s pure, straight-from-birth behavior, with no training and no environmental pressures, hardwired in their DNA, and you’re not going to change it.

So . . . by now you’re wondering, what’s this got to do with negotiating? Plenty!

The first step to producing good negotiators is..., “Hire the right people!”

Over the years, we have trained thousands of people all over the world. All of them are exposed to world-class training. All are taught what to do and how to do it. Do they all come out of the training to perform at a high level?

Well, as you’d expect, a lot of them do, and do it very well. Others do it to a degree—not as well as the first group, but they make a noticeable improvement in their ability to negotiate. And, of course, there’s another (thankfully, much smaller) group that makes disappointingly little use of the information and skills they have gained in the sessions.

What can account for this? It’s not that they aren’t smart enough, and they’re not lazy, either. No, they’re like the nonswimmers at the dog park: it’s just NOT THEIR THING. You can beg, bribe, or cajole; push or pull; wave the carrot or the stick—nothing is going to get them to plunge in and get face-to-face with someone in a great back-and-forth negotiation. It’s just not going to happen, because it’s not their thing.

Don’t get me wrong. They may be of immense value in another position in the company. It just needs to be the right fit.

When you’re hiring, be sure you’re looking past raw intelligence, past the credentials, because, to an astonishing degree, people are hardwired. Trying to get people to do work they aren’t wired for is like teaching a Rottweiler to herd sheep: you may get some results, but they’ll never be great at work they aren’t born to. People are the way they are. So when you’re hiring for a position that requires someone to negotiate, get yourself a hunter—a natural-born, no-apologies hunter, who enjoys jumping in and going after it.

When you train a hunter to negotiate, you’ll get maximum return on your training dollars.

Good negotiating to you.