Prior to heading to Tokyo to negotiate with Japanese customers, I attended a three-day class called Doing Business with the Japanese. During this time I learned an important tactic to use during negotiation with anyone – an ex, a lawyer, a boss.

On the very first day, a woman walked into the conference room and set her briefcase down at the head of an oblong table. When the group had quieted down, she began with a description of her credentials. To us, it sounded more like an apology.

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“I’m relatively new to this and haven’t had much time to prepare. But I’ll gladly share what little I know about negotiating with the Japanese.” She paused, then went on in the same self-deprecating vein for several more minutes. Then she ended with a bow and asked this simple question, “what did you think of my opening remarks?”

A financial analyst answered, “Well, you sound unsure of yourself. Just how long have you been working with the Japanese? Are you qualified to teach us this stuff?”

She smiled. “Thank you. You’re quite right, Frank. I’ve just demonstrated the primary method of negotiation used by a native Japanese speaker. He humbles himself. We Americans want to help and may even feel superior to him. And we’re ready to exploit his weakness. But in reality, the speaker knows way more than you do. He just doesn’t want you to know that he knows.”

Deference and humility are prized traits in many Eastern cultures. The theory is that if you think you are stronger and in a better bargaining position than your negotiation partner, you will be required to help them—the weaker, less well-positioned party—by offering concessions. It’s a strategy that sometimes works with us Americans.

What do I mean by “humility”? The most common definition is modesty. But the Latin root of the word can be translated as grounded, or from the earth. 

In the United States, being humble is often confused with being weak. But humility and assertiveness can and do coexist. In his book Negotiating International Business, Lothar Katz says, “While the Hong Kong Chinese view politeness and humility as essential ingredients for a successful relationship, these factors do not affect their determination to reach business goals.”

In Stephen Covey’s view, “A humble person is more concerned about what is right than about being right, about acting on good ideas than having the ideas, about embracing new truth than defending outdated positions, about building the team than exalting the self, about recognizing contribution than being recognized for making it.”

In other words, humble people put others first and are willing to expose their vulnerabilities. Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take, recognizes humility as a characteristic of a giver (as opposed to a taker or matcher). In his terminology, a giver engages in “powerless communication,” listening, asking questions, admitting weakness, and seeking advice. He cites the disarming trial lawyer with a stutter as an example. In Jim Camp’s world of “no,” the successful negotiator has to “not be okay,” less than perfect, in order to make his or her negotiation partner feel more at ease. His example is the disheveled detective from the Columbo television show. In both cases, people will empathize with a negotiator who is imperfect and may instinctively trust that person a bit more.

Humble people have been successful in some of the most in influential negotiations in history. Think of Nelson Mandela who, in a complex, multiparty setting, after serving 27 years in prison and against a backdrop of political and ethnic violence, negotiated an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Or consider Benjamin Franklin, the consummate negotiator, who knew the value of using silence and humility in presenting his position. His ownership of a printing press allowed him to persuade others indirectly, through essays often written under pseudonyms. He also credited others with significant ideas. (But Franklin was not without his detractors. Many believe that he was anything but humble, and he often used others’ words without permission).

Regardless of how you judge his behavior, Franklin was responsible for several important and successful negotiations, including getting a treaty signed with the French to aid America against the British during the Revolutionary War, negotiating peace with Britain at the war’s end, and helping to create the U.S. Constitution. One of his many biographers, Walter Isaacson, summed up his contributions this way: he believed in having the humility to be open to different opinions.

For him that was not merely a practical virtue, but a moral one as well. It was based on the tenet, so fundamental to most moral systems, that every individual deserves respect. During the Constitutional Convention, for example, he was willing to compromise some of his beliefs to play a critical role in the conciliation that produced a near-perfect document. It could not have been accomplished if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle.

It takes great strength to be humble in negotiations, to give more than you take and to put others’ needs before your own. But this is the level of selflessness a transformative negotiator must aspire to. In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is a person following Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, who helps relieve the suffering of every sentient being in the world before trying to achieve his or her own awakening. is capacity for humility goes hand in hand with empathy and compassion, which we’ll cover in the next chapter.

Excerpt from The Transformative Negotiator: Changing How We Come to Agreement from the Inside Out. By Michèle Huff, J.D. UNHOOKED BOOKS.


About Michèle Huff, J.D.

Michèle Huff is an attorney who has negotiated on behalf of Fortune 500 companies, including Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, and Canal+ and start-up companies including Kalepa Networks and Cinnafilm. She has also negotiated on behalf of hundreds of individual clients and manages the Archer Law Group, a firm specializing in protecting and licensing creative properties. Since 2008, she has been the University of New Mexico’s lawyer for research, technology and intellectual property. She negotiates agreements with industry, academic institutions, and governmental agencies on a regular basis. Michèle has taught intellectual property and licensing at the University of New Mexico’s School of Law, and has led negotiation workshops for local community foundations, technology venture associations, and business incubators. In May, she co-presented a session on Transformative Negotiation at NBIA’s 28th International Conference on Business Incubation in New Orleans. She was named one of Albuquerque Business First’s 2014 Women of Influence.

To view Huff's book, "The Transformative Negotiator," visit this link: