Four ounces of force

Effective negotiations and problem/conflict solving are all about gently guiding instead of butting heads. That is unless you are at a car dealership, in which case butting heads without flinching is the strategy to go.

So how can you gently guide while gaining a deeper understanding along the way? You need to seek for common purpose and goals!

Finding common purpose and goals

It all starts with listening actively, trying to understand what the other party wants to achieve and what motivates and drives them. You must seek to understand their goals and purpose. Likewise, you need to explain your motivations, goals, and reasons-why so that the other party knows where you are coming from and what you are trying to achieve.

Chances are that you will need to take the active part for both sides – seeking to understand the other party and making yourself understood. Admittedly it is a lot of work, but the return is well worth the investment!

Listen to understand. Explain to be understood.

By listening actively, you will find common ground, shared goals, and win-win opportunities that will reveal a shared path forward. Furthermore, working together with your negotiation partner, you will find a solution that is better than what either of you had thought of in the first place.

That is the ideal scenario and hopefully how the majority of your negotiations will go.

But what if the other party doesn’t want to play ball, listen actively, and seek common ground? What if they are actively or passively aggressive? Well, then it’s time for Plan B.

Redirect their energy

Instead of trying to work against their energy – butting heads – lead it in a direction that will guide their momentum where you want it to be. Redirect them. If they want to jump on you, make sure they will instead propel themselves in the place where you want them to be.

There is an exercise in Tai Chi in which you learn to control your partner and redirect his energy (and attack) while never exerting any more than four ounces of force. It’s called Pushing hands, and it’s all about sensing, perceiving, and then connecting and gently redirecting. It sounds too good to be true, but in reality, it is just a matter of awareness and proper guidance at critical moments of a developing move.

The same can be said for artful negotiations or even playing chess (or anything else that requires strategy). You want to gently and proactively set the playing field such that the desired outcome will inevitably be reached while avoiding unnecessary blood baths. You want to be sensitive to developing strategies and moves and redirect them the desired way before they build up momentum.

A master works through soft redirection instead of aggressive confrontation.

In negotiations, you can do this by building a funnel of facts, evidence, reasoning, and logical conclusions that eventually doesn’t leave any other reasonable outcome than the one you desired to achieve. You set guardrails (for example, “These are the goals, do you agree?”, “Here are all constraints that I know of, are there any others?”) and let them narrow in through the negotiations, just like a funnel (for example, “Since we already agreed on A and B, C must be true as well. Am I missing something here?”). Know what outcome you want to achieve, and make sure the funnel points squarely to that outcome – plan ahead how you will start from a wide opening while deliberately narrowing down as you go.

Create a glide path that the other part can – and eventually must – follow.

The more you argue, the weaker your position will get

Also, keep in mind that the one who speaks the most usually has the weakest points. If we are insecure, we talk a lot and try to explain something we don’t fully believe in ourselves. If we are confident, we will make short and pointed statements. Others will pick on that. A sure-fire way to spot a lie is if someone explains their point with way too much detail. Humans are subconsciously tuned-in to those signals.

The shorter, crisper, and more pointed your responses are, the more you strengthen your position and credibility.

Shorter is almost always better – the more you talk and explain, the weaker your point, perception, and position. Of course, you can overdo this, and there is a point where your response lacks the necessary depth to be convincing. However, realistically only a few of us need to worry about that end of the spectrum. Most of us talk way too much and listen way too little.

Keep your comments short and to the point. Make every word matter and serve your goal. Let the other party talk while you lead with questions and build your funnel.

Don’t waste all your energy – let THEM run tired.

At the same time, you need to be persistent – dropping the ball or avoiding the discussion never buys you anything. Put the crisp facts out there, ask guiding questions, build your funnel, and pull the trigger when the other party has maneuvered themselves in the corner where you wanted them, and the outcome is inevitable.

Back to Tai Chi:

Only use four ounces of force. Put them in the right places at the right time and redirect the other person’s energy where you want it to be. You will make it impossible for the other person to break out of your lead.


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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Strategic thinking – You need to drop your established thought models!

thik big

How do you change your mindset from thinking tactical to approaching challenges from a strategic perspective? Heck, what is the difference between the two to begin with?

If you think tactically, you are focused on the next small step from where you are now. You think about the next natural thing to do. Indeed, very often, that’s exactly what you need to do: “do the next right thing” (from Frozen 2 for all of you who have little kids). The challenge is that while you progress with that approach, it will not always be in the direction you should go. You move forward, but not with a clear target in mind.

Thinking strategically turns that model around as it starts from where you want to be in the future. It doesn’t concern itself with the immediate next step but looks at the bigger picture and the more distant future. Strategic thinking asks what that ideal future would look like. Then, and only then, it goes into figuring out how you could get there.

Tactical thinking is our natural tendency – after all, our ancestors had to be much more occupied with finding their next meal than with planning five years ahead. Strategic thinking started as they settled down and needed to think ahead to the fall harvest. It expanded the opportunities they were presented with.

If you want to have true impact, you need to think strategically. Fluency between tactical and strategic thinking makes you a leader.

To think strategically, you need to change your thought models in these three ways:

Always start with the ‘why’ – Before you can even get into what the ideal end state should be, you need to get clarity on what you want to achieve. WHY are you doing this? What is the change you want to drive and why? How is the new situation different, and why does that matter? Understand your WHY, and you will know where you need to go!

Think big and forget what you currently know – Very often, we hold ourselves back by what we know or what we think we know. We subconsciously hold to constraints that are often not real but just assumed. We have solutions in mind that limit how creatively we entertain out-of-the-box approaches. We are afraid of the challenges of taking on big scary goals, and with that, we unconsciously aim a lot lower than we should. Forget about all of those – think about what the end state looks like in an ideal world. If you had no constraints at all, what would you work towards?

Incremental thinking – The last and hardest mindset shift is to let go of incremental thinking. This is super hard. At Amazon, it took me about a year to train new – highly educated – employees to make that mental leap. We all tend to “think forward” from what we have. What is the next set of improvements to the toolset we currently use? What are the next adaptations to the process? While this is nice and good for continuous improvement efforts, it precludes disruptive changes – and disruptive changes are what really moves you ahead. You must avoid incremental thinking as the actual new ideal end-state might require you to give up what you currently have.

Don’t start from what you have. Start from where you want to be and then figure out how you could get there.

Thinking strategically, or “thinking big” is one of my three favorite leadership principles at the core of Amazon’s approach to challenges and opportunities. Here is how the official definition goes:

Think Big
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Building strong relationships – Accountability matters

If you want to build strong relationships with your partners, you need to build trust. Trust comes from being open and honest. It also comes from saying what you’re going to do and then following through on your promise. Every time!

If you have strong relationships and trust, the sky is the limit to what you can achieve. If you don’t have that basis, you will forever be the lone warrior and limited by what you as an individual can do.

Strong relationships require trust. Trust requires accountability.

Value your partner

Value your partner the same way you would like to be valued. If you need them to do something for you, explain why it’s important. Give real deadlines when you need something back, not sandbagged ones that will make life more comfortable on your end but put the other person under unnecessary pressure.

Assume maturity in their planning and hold them accountable against their promises.

Own your promises

On the flip side, your partners need to be able to trust the promises you have made. Don’t let things slip, don’t have them check back in and remind you of something you said you would do.

Close the loop on any actions you have. Do what you said you would do. Deliver in time and with the expected high quality.

Earning trust is one of my three favorite Amazon leadership principles. Here is how the official definition goes – however, in my opinion, it misses the accountability piece:

Earn Trust

Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Here’s a simple framework to ensure accountability

Establishing ownership

  1. If you need something – If you need something, establish explicit ownership. Get an explicit commitment. There is no half-commitment. Ownership is digital – either you own it, or you don’t.
  2. If you are asked to do something – If you are asked to do something, usually commitment is assumed. If that assumption is wrong, you must explicitly say NO. It can be ok to deprioritize or postpone something, but you have to SAY it explicitly to the requestor.
  3. Pretending ignorance doesn’t give you a free pass – Haven’t seen a task or request is not a good excuse if you did get the information. Pretending not to see something is not ok.

Following through on ownership

  1. Owning means owning – You own it, you do it, you fix it. Don’t just drop a task last minute because you have overcommitted yourself. Once you own something and realize that you cannot deliver it, YOU are responsible for finding a way to get it delivered, not the person who has asked you in the first place.
  2. Accountability is a part of the performance – Work is not a place where you make promises and then fail to meet them. When you miss something once for good reasons, people will work around it. When you miss your promises repeatedly, then you will lose trust and support. You will run into performance problems.
  3. If you don’t get support, escalate effectively – If a deliverable from someone else holds you back, you need to escalate quickly. Waiting for someone else but not letting anyone know is not a good reason for not delivering. If you need something, say it right away!

The flip side of the accountability expectation

Some organizations drive themselves into a culture of non-accountability. They do that by frequently changing priorities and not following through on things that previously have been the most critical thing to do.

If priorities change all the time, employees cannot be accountable. Period. Employees learn this quickly and resort to ignoring tasks and promises unless they serve their own needs. After an employee has missed their promises often enough and without consequence (because the leader’s mindset has moved to the next shiny object), they will have learned that accountability doesn’t matter and that they can’t control their ability to deliver what the leader wants anyway.

If requests become too much, too unpredictable, or too random, people will disengage and stop owning things. They will lose their sense of connection and accountability

If you ask for something, you need to follow through, and you must value the deliverables you get back and take action on them. If priorities do change, tell the people who are working on tasks for you about the change early enough so that they don’t waste their time and energy.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Developing mechanisms and turning them into culture

Have you ever been in a situation where you discovered a problem, found the root cause after some investigation, determined corrective actions, and fixed the issue – only to see the same or a similar problem creep up again a few weeks later?

What happened? You fixed the problem, but you didn’t make the learning and fix a part of your operations moving forward. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the next issue at hand and thus not turning the fix or change into sustained improvement.

Create a mechanism

The way to make a change sustained is to create a mechanism.

Mechanisms can be many things: an updated process description, a recurring reminder on your calendar, a check-in meeting cadence with set agenda topics, or a scheduled report that you review on a regular basis.

The important common quality of all of those is that they remind you to think about the previous problem, its fix, and future prevention on a regular basis. Each of those mechanisms ingrains the learning into your operational processes and memory. They make it stick.

For example, if you want to make sure that system changes that impact multiple teams are reliably communicated to everyone, you cannot just send out an email to all groups and tell them to please do so in the future. That email will stick in their memory for about a week – if you are lucky. Instead, if you have a recurring meeting with that stakeholder group, you should make it a standing agenda item for those meetings to check for any planned changes that need to be communicated. That way, you transformed the one-off issue, fix, and learning into a repeatable process. You change the operations – and eventually the thinking – of the team.

If you want something to stick, you must develop a mechanism for it.

From mechanisms to culture

While a mechanism will help you achieve the desired outcome, it is not where you want to end up.

Mechanisms ensure that things get done the right way. However, they are also crutches for doing the right thing. Mechanisms require you to handhold and micromanage a specific behavior because it is not yet the natural behavior of the group.

You really want to achieve that the behavior becomes natural for the group and doesn’t need constant reminder through the mechanism. You want to achieve culture change.

Culture doesn’t change because you tell it to – culture changes through repetition, role modeling, and shared expectations. However, mechanisms can help you change the culture as they provide repetition (muscle memory) and remind everyone that a certain behavior is important (expectation setting). Over time mechanisms can evolve into culture.

A word of caution: think carefully about what your organizational priorities are and what you want to focus on. If everything becomes a mechanism, nothing matters at all. I’ve been in organizations where we had so many mechanisms that everyone lost track. In the end, none of them mattered, and their utility evaporated.

If you never make it to culture change, if you don’t change thinking, if you don’t role model the right behavior, you will spend a lot of time and energy to make sure the right things happen (aka micro-management).

Culture is the end goal. Mechanisms only compensate for culture.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.