Ask the professor: Wharton’s Mori Taheripour on how to negotiate the right way

Mori Taheripour teaches negotiations at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has taught undergraduates, MBA students and executive MBA students how to have better business conversations. Taheripour has also coached corporate clients, including on behalf of Goldman Sachs and Major League Baseball, about how to feel more confident and comfortable in negotiating, a skill that everyone uses daily but which tends to be seen as a kind of dark art.

Amid the backdrop of one of the highest-profile negotiations in recent memory, centered on Elon Musk’s ongoing stop-and-go plans to buy Twitter, and aware that many readers are negotiating on their own behalf right now — for more time, more funding, a better exit package, fewer investor protections — we talked with Taheripour earlier this week to ask where negotiations tend to falter and how to help them succeed. Excerpts from that chat follow edited for length and clarity.

TC: You’ve been an expert in dispute resolution and negotiation for more than a decade. You also published a book on the topic during the pandemic that was well-received. For people who haven’t yet read it, is the ability to negotiate well somewhat intuitive or entirely learned?

It’s not a skill that you’re necessarily born with. It’s something that you learn, and I actually think most people are better negotiators than they think they are because we do it so much. It’s only when we see negotiations through the lens of things that are really transactional, and maybe conflict ridden, that people put negotiations in a category of things people don’t really enjoy or they’re really afraid of or that are really uncomfortable, and they want to put it off. But any parent, anybody who’s in a relationship, anybody who has employees, anybody who has a pet . . . is probably really good at negotiations.

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I do contend daily with a very bossy terrier, yet like a lot of people, I find formal negotiations daunting. What are some of the most common missteps people make when they’re in a business-related negotiation process?

That you feel daunted is a mystery to me. You have to be an exceptional negotiator to do what you do [as a reporter]. If you’re curious and have a learning mindset and want to expand your horizons by learning about different things, as opposed to leading with certainty, you’re [in good shape]. At the heart of all negotiations is human connection. That’s where the magic happens. Most negotiations are not transactional. The best negotiations are either fostering relationships that we already have, or creating new ones. And once you look at it that way, then negotiations become a conversation. Some conversations are harder than others. But they shouldn’t be if we open our minds to them with a sense of empathy and wanting to be creative and wanting to not focus on any one solution.

Your book is about how to “negotiate fearlessly,” yet there’s a fine line between fearless and overconfident. Any pointers for readers who might be wondering how to straddle that line?

A lot of this goes back to negative self talk and self sabotage. You’re not going to be an excellent negotiator just because you’re smarter and have a higher IQ. Being an excellent negotiator really starts with you getting out of your own way. Great negotiators are great storytellers who can see themselves from a place of value and fearlessly self advocate.

If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t fearlessly understand your own self value, then the goals that you set for yourself are diminished. They become safe. They may even become mediocre. And once your goals are watered down and safe, then what you ask for is going to be reflective of those goals, and you’re not going to get enough.

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The minute you give up your power – you either back off in order to make the other [party] happy or to avoid conflict – then you can’t stay in the conversation. You have to have the self-confidence that you two are part of this conversation and your space is as important as theirs. It doesn’t mean those two things are mutually exclusive; it means that you seek solutions that are mutually inclusive.

What about all the old adages to never take the first offer, to push for 20% more? Are any of these truly relevant?

The way I teach is not at all prescriptive. I don’t believe in always, and I don’t believe in never.

The older we get, our gut instinct becomes stronger and our intuition and emotional intelligence become stronger. We should be using these to navigate conversations, as opposed to trying to remember what a professor said in class. When you’re boxed in like that, it creates a lot of anxiety, especially because no negotiation is the same, and the person sitting across from you, that audience, is always different.

Elon Musk has seemingly been trying to negotiate with Twitter on Twitter, either knock down the price or get out of the deal or buy himself some time – who knows. Either way, making the conversation — or part of it — so public is obviously by design and I wonder if this will become a kind of case study for future negotiations.

He’s playing by completely different rules. Five or 10 years ago, this would probably be a nightmare for shareholders and companies because you want to hold on to what’s happening until it’s all done and then go public with it. But what’s quite traditional is that he’s controlling his own story and the messaging that comes out is his, no matter how confusing.

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If you think about it, he has been testing the water for far longer than the six months since he proposed buying Twitter. Every time he says anything about Tesla stock, prices change; people react immediately. So I think he saw the power that he had in literally changing markets [by using Twitter].

Do you think there is a master plan here? Do you see any logic in this chaos?

Truth be told, I was incredibly surprised when the deal fell apart — and there was the threat of litigation and things got messy and he tried to step away — I thought that for sure if the deal was to happen, the stock price or deal valuation would be a lot lower at least. When [the deal was suddenly] back and it was not lower, I was baffled.

What I can tell you is that I don’t think Elon Musk does anything accidentally. I think that there was great intention. Twitter is this incredible platform for communication, and if you can control that one way or another, that’s a lot of power. For a man who’s sort of controlling transportation in some ways, [and] the future outer space, I don’t think that one day he woke up and said, ‘Oh, maybe I should buy Twitter.’ I think this has been on his mind for quite some time. And I think that he obviously sees its value, maybe in a way that none of us are even imagining.

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