6 Winning Negotiation Lessons from Game of Thrones
By Marty Latz
“This will be a difficult negotiation. We’re sitting down with people who want to see us both headless… You need to take your enemies’ side if you’re going to see things the way they do. And you need to see things the way they do if you’re going to anticipate their actions, respond effectively and beat them.” — Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.
After years of hearing about Game of Thrones, I just finished binge-watching all 8 seasons. What a series! And what a bunch of great negotiation lessons. Here are a few, starting with the quote above.
1. “See things the way [your counterparts] do”
This is crucial in all negotiations. Easy to say – but very difficult to do. Stepping into their shoes is incredibly challenging even for the best negotiators. One way to help accomplish this is to ask a colleague to practice the negotiation with you. Then you role-play your counterpart.
2. Know the Value of a Reputation for Honesty
“But have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then. Just a bit.” Tyrion Lannister to Jon Snow. Snow: “I’m not going to swear an oath I can’t uphold… [W]hen enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies. And lies won’t help us in this fight.”
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
False promises, and a reputation for making them, will almost always come back to haunt you. The opposite, too. A reputation for honesty will almost always benefit you.
3. Alliances (or partnerships) based on true shared interests will last – others will not.
“We enter these negotiations with open eyes… I don’t trust [them]. I trust their self-interest. They are trustworthy if they believe that working with me [and our agreement] is in their self-interest.” Tyrion Lannister to Missandei and Grey Worm.
Tyrion is right – parties generally do what is in their self-interest. And alliances and agreements are based on mutual shared interests. Unfortunately, Tyrion misjudged his counterparts’ true self-interest here (which they hid from him), another common negotiation problem.
4. Information and leverage provide negotiation power – but leverage provides more power.
“Knowledge is power,” said master manipulator Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) to Cersei Lannister, which prompts her to tell her guards “Seize him. Cut his throat. Stop. Wait. I’ve changed my mind. Let him go … (the guards release him). Power is power.”
The most powerful element in negotiations is almost always leverage, which fundamentally rests on what happens if you can’t reach agreement (your Plan B as any possible agreement is Plan A). Cersei’s raw power to kill Littlefinger was a bad Plan B for him.
Kit Harington as Jon Snow (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
5. Leverage is fluid and changes, so strike while you’ve got it.
Numerous examples exist in the show that illustrates how leverage – in the form of the ability to win a war and make the defeated armies’ Plan B really bad – can change with time. Perhaps the prime example was when Queen Daenerys Targaryen had three dragons and a fresh army at the gate of her enemy Queen Cersei Lannister – an overwhelming military advantage. But Daenerys reached a deal with Cersei, which Cersei breached after Daenerys took her army to fight a supposed common enemy.
Later, Daenerys fought Cersei with a depleted force and only one dragon. While she still prevailed, it came at a much greater cost as Cersei spent the intervening time buying additional troops and developing an effective anti-dragon weapon.
6. Build enforcement mechanisms to ensure agreements last
I lost track of how many times agreements were breached and alliances broken throughout the series. These can be prevented by building in provisions ensuring it is in the parties’ interests to fulfill their commitments – and that the consequences to them of a breach is really bad.
Latz’s Lesson: Look for negotiation lessons everywhere – even in popular television shows – and you will constantly improve your skills and results.
* Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.
I don’t watch Game of Thrones. Yet I found your observations on Negotiating Principles found in the show very interesting. Now I think I’ll take the time to watch the show. Most excellent principles noted. Thank you.
Thank you for your comment Mark Morgan.
So what’s the value of this fictional lesson to people working in the real world, and how does this apply to a business setting? Every executive has limited time, and in an ideal situation, relies on others to inform and expand her decision-making abilities. In situations where negotiations are delicate or have hit a wall, being an effective back channel can help leaders bridge a stalled negotiation and ultimately help everyone win.
Even though Game of Thrones is a fictional show, the lessons gleaned about human nature, communication, trust and strategy are useful in the real world and the board room. Thanks for your comment.