What Can Bodyguard Teach Us About Negotiation?

The word “negotiation” usually connects to sales talks, to making the most out of a situation, and perhaps to the fear of being intimidated by the other party. That’s what I’ve learnt while conducting classes with customers from various businesses. Yes, people usually get easily terrified with the n-word. But they shouldn’t be! While watching the first episode of the new craze – BBC’s Bodyguard, I realized that we’ve got it all wrong, and that negotiating happens much more often than behind the glass walls of the conference room. We can learn a lot from the main character of this splendid TV series.

If you have had an opportunity to see the first episode, and the scene where David Budd, a police sergeant, convinces the female-bomber, Nadia, to give up on her mission, you probably get the idea that negotiations do not always have to “intimidate” the other side. It would be more about establishing the bond. If David Budd reacted as a cold-blooded sales person, with a poker face, then… the show wouldn’t be about him. It would end pretty quickly. There are several aspects of the scene that made me rethink the whole negotiation process and encourage others to head towards this way of discussions.

1. Watch Your Tone

As-salamu alaykum

The first thing that struck me was the tone of David’s voice when he says these words of greeting. In that nerve-racking situation, being calm was a necessity. However, David took it to another level. Not only did he remain calm but also, he expressed his emotions, knowing perfectly well how to show them. You see, the poker face works when it protects you from showing what you really think. Luckily, if you’re fluent in analyzing body language, you can detect the thoughts of your interlocutor. BUT! If you’re cold as ice, how could you establish a rapport, which is so desperately needed in long-term talks? You’ve probably heard before that negotiations should be all about cultivating the relation.

2. State your intentions and find the common ground

I just want to talk, that’s all.

Says David with his lovely Scottish accent. Scared as hell, he proceeds to state his intentions, and presents all the possible options to the bomber-to-be. Stop there. He presents all the possible options, widening Nadia’s point of view, and getting her attention away from her goal.

However, the question arises – is activating the explosives her real goal? Let’s imagine – you get into the train, open the loo, and there she is, ready with her fancy explosives. Personally? I would panic, of course (yes, that’s why I’m a linguist, not working as an armed officer), and the last thing that the survival instinct would tell me would be: “Look at her, does she REALLY want to bomb the train?”. Never. Yet, David has the ability to re-analyze her behavior and be bold enough to confirm her REAL goal. Which would be staying alive, avoiding the punishment from her husband. Cool, huh? Now, let’s translate this situation into our negation question. How many times have you come to a discussions with a ready vision, assuming you know what the interlocutors desire? Either you were well-prepared, trying to foresee the possible scenarios and chose the most probable one, or spontaneously, you hung onto one cue that in your opinion stated the others’ intentions. The third possibility is that you re-analyzed the situation by asking powerful questions, observing the context, and then you drew conclusions. Stick to the third one. It will help you in directing the convo later on. Well, it worked for David, and the rest of the train.

As you have established the other side’s goals, now you want to specify your intentions, if that’s possible. For what? For the sake of the rapport. Remember that we mostly fear what we don’t know. The feeling of comfort comes when we realize what the boundaries are, and how much we can rely on the other person. Do exactly that. Utopian? Not if you try to do it in a smart way. Leave a margin of doubt, keep one argument for yourself just in case but always try to make the other side feel comfortable.

3. Small Talk Helps

My name is David Budd.

Small talk, a phenomenon studied by the Polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, is so hated yet salvific. David proceeds with introducing the emotional factor, talking about his kids (spoiler alert: seemed like a good idea, right?), trying to keep the contact with the bomber-to-be non-stop. Do that. I mean nourishing the contact, not keeping it with the bomber. If you start from business topics, and end on that then the only connection between you and the interlocutor will be… yes, business. However, if you try to treat the other as a partner to talk, the chances of establishing rapport and making your life easier are higher. Just don’t push it. Silence is awkward but weird small talk can be even worse.

4. Relate

… for what? Nothing. Politicians; cowards and liars (…) but you and I? We’re just collateral damage. Don’t let them win, Nadia.

That’s it. Bullseye! In this situation, David showed that he and Nadia are not so different. In fact, they’re in the same boat. That’s relatability. If you are able to find a common point, story or goal for both, you show relatability which boosts your possibilities to close the deal. That’s simple yet moves mountains. The bottom line is that without common understanding, you will never succeed in a long term. I would even risk stating that you won’t succeed at all!

5. Talk that Talk

I’m not going anywhere. Stay right here.

Remember what I wrote about making the other side comfortable? Show your devotion, engagement and the side you’re on. Switching sides, changing decisions constantly without a given reason will only show that you’re a non-trustworthy partner. And, I don’t want to count how many times it happens in business negotiations… or in your private life. It’s pretty obvious that if the other side has no certainty of what to expect, they won’t risk too much, and either close the basic deal very soon, without any prospect for the future talks or will simply leave the discussions. Coherence is everything. Do what you promise; make sure they know, you’ve got their backs.

Do remember that even if you are the one who’s “in power” and show it by intimidating the others, you might get what you want this time but the future rapport could be out of question. (By the way, if you think that all depends on you, you might want to rethink your mindset!) Fruitful cooperation does not emerge in the feeling of fear. Nor does openness and honesty. Take an example from David. In Nadia’s eyes, he risked being shot by his own people, and showed her support till the very end. Now, let’s mention Newton. Yes, Isaac Newton and the third law of motion. In short; to every action, there’s always opposed equal reaction, so if you go with cutting corners and cunning – be ready for consequences.

That’s it. These are the general lessons that you can learn from only 6 minutes of the first Bodyguard episode. There’s no need to panic, right? Negotiation should be a two-way conversation in which you would be able to convince the bomber-to-be not to activate the explosives.

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