Interview with Christine Mckay
Negotiate Like a Pro with Christine McKay
When people hear the term negotiation, they usually think of tense arguments and nerve-wracking meetings. To think that negotiation boils down to whether someone gets the better deal of the bargain is to operate from a place of scarcity.
Today’s guest, Christine McKay, will be the first to tell you that negotiation doesn’t have to be a “win or lose” scenario. It’s not about winning; it’s about building relationships and being curious about your counterpart.
Christine is the Founder and CEO of Venn Negotiation, a company through which she turns clients into world-class negotiators. She has worked with roughly half of the Fortune 500 companies and negotiated on behalf of hundreds of small and mid-sized businesses.
Before becoming a negotiation powerhouse doing billion-dollar deals, Christine had to overcome adversity. She was homeless, on welfare, and a single mother. On top of that, she struggled with alcohol dependency.
Against all odds and the prediction of many people, she got a scholarship from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and later earned her M.B.A. degree at Harvard University.
In this episode, we discuss her journey from a homeless person to a world-class negotiator, key mistakes people make in the negotiation process, and the mindset and steps that will make you a negotiator extraordinaire.
Christine’s story blew me away, and I think you’ll get a lot of value out of it.
Featured on This Episode: Christine McKay
✅ What she does: Christine McKay is a Business Negotiation Strategist who has worked for hundreds of small and mid-sized companies and many of the Fortune 500. In 2018, she launched Venn Negotiation, an organization that turns clients into world-class negotiators. Using her decades of experience, Christine helps the companies she works with level the playing field in every negotiation setting. She is also the author of the book “Why Not Ask? A Conversation About Getting More” and hosts the “In the Venn Zone” podcast that provides listeners with insights and tips on negotiating better in every interaction.
💬 Words of wisdom: “Part of being effective at negotiating is getting them to get to the same side that you are, so that you’re not sitting across the table and that you’re bringing them.” – Christine McKay
Key Takeaways with Christine McKay
- Find out what made Christine decide to transform her life of scarcity into a life of abundance and purpose in every field.
- You think that sitting at the head of the table gives you a better negotiation position? Think again. Learn where Christine usually sits during negotiations.
- Learn how Christine taught herself to read contracts and sift through them to determine where her clients are at a disadvantage.
- How she helped a company go from $1 million in debt to selling for $150 million to a Fortune 500 company.
- Negotiations can get tense. It’s easy to react emotionally when that happens. Learn a better alternative.
- Non-verbal cues can be your saving grace in negotiations. Learn why Christine dyes her hair with funky colors.
- How to be a better negotiator on Zoom. You’ll be surprised by the little things you can use on Zoom to shift the momentum during a negotiation.
- Find out how Christine negotiates with huge organizations that aren’t always friendly towards her clients.
- You’re not the most important person at the negotiating table. Learn the importance of relationships and understanding the person across the table.
Christine McKay – From Homeless to Harvard to Fortune 500’s
Christine McKay Tweetables“You’re negotiating with everybody. You’re negotiating with your employees, customers, suppliers, and partners. You’re constantly in a negotiation. Every relationship is negotiated.” - Christine McKay Click To Tweet “Listen to the silence between the words that are being said, because that’s where the value is, that’s where the richness of the value of that conversation sits.” - Christine McKay Click To Tweet
- Christine McKay on LinkedIn
- Venn Negotiation
- Deloitte Consulting
- Why Not Ask?: A Conversation About Getting More by Christine McKay
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher
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Read the Full Transcript with Christine McKay
Justin Donald: Well, hey, Christine, it’s so good to have you on my show. Thanks for joining.
Christine McKay: Hey, Justin, so excited to be here. It’s such an honor to be here for you and for your audience. Really looking forward to our conversation.
Justin Donald: Well, this is going to be fun because, well, first of all, we were recommended by a mutual friend, Brandon Fong, who speaks very highly of you. And what an incredible guy. He is doing some awesome stuff in the podcast world and impacting millennials and just is a natural speaker and communicator. The guy is great.
Christine McKay: Yes. Agreed. I agree 100% with that.
Justin Donald: Yeah, well, it’s fine. I love getting recommendations from people, and we caught up a little bit here off-air. And I’m just so excited about the show. I can already sense and tell the type of person that you are, that you legitimately love what you do and helping people. And I think it’s neat to have someone on that. Your title, by the way, is really impressive. You’re a global business negotiating strategist, a world-class negotiator.
But at the end of the day, you teach skills that are imperative for anyone and everyone, doesn’t matter if you’re in business or not, especially if you’re in business, but Negotiation 101, that is most interactions that we have. Or at some point across any day, we’re going to have some sort of negotiation with someone.
Christine McKay: Absolutely. I think that one of the things that I hear entrepreneurs say sometimes that just scares the daylights out of me is I don’t negotiate. I’m like, oh, my gosh, you’re negotiating with everybody, your employees. You’re negotiating with your customers, your suppliers, your partners. And it’s just you’re constantly in a negotiation. Every relationship is negotiated.
Justin Donald: Yeah. And just the foundation of the way that you look at negotiating is what I’ve taught people for decades, which is that negotiating is a conversation. It’s not one person against another person. It’s not me on this side of the table and you on that side of the table, and we’re going to see who comes out victorious. It’s very much, it should be, or a successful negotiation is when you kind of sit on the same side of the table and you have a dialog.
And it’s not about winning, it’s about finding an outcome that feels great where everyone walks away saying, this is good, this is a great partnership, so it doesn’t need to be adversarial or confrontational the way that some people make it out to be or the way that some people, I guess, do it, negotiate that way. So, I love what you do. Talk about that a little bit.
Christine McKay: Yeah. Thank you. Yes, absolutely. I mean, I always say that negotiation is a conversation about a relationship, and you cannot win a relationship, but you can get more value out of them. And sitting down, I love that you say sitting down on the same side of the table. That’s my favorite place to be with somebody that I’m negotiating with.
The challenge is that so many people have been taught that negotiation is you’re negotiating against somebody, and it is this adversarial thing. And we see it in the movies and we see it in the media and we see it in politics. And you see executives talking about it in that way. But, oh, my gosh, what happens if we take that language away and we sit and we go, how do we solve this together?
My attorney friends laugh at me because I say that negotiation is a hopeful act and they’re like, what the heck are you talking about? For attorneys, it’s not a hopeful act. For attorneys, they’re trying to keep you out of jail and out of court. And once you get to that level, they’re like, you either go to court or you don’t, you either get sued or you don’t. There are binary outcomes in that profession.
But as business owners, our world is not binary. It’s so multifaceted, and there are so many amazing creative opportunities for us to create more value for everybody. And we use information from the past to figure out where we’re at today so that we can divine a future that’s better together. And it’s really that hope of what that future relationship is going to be like that causes us to enter into agreements with people in the first place. And you’re never entering into agreements with companies, you’re only entering into agreements with people. And when we look at individuals and we negotiate with a person instead of an entity or a country, it changes how we have that conversation entirely.
Justin Donald: Yeah, that’s profound. And I wish more people understood that so we can just have this great conversation back and forth and just make it a little bit smoother, more comfortable. To me, it is comfortable. I think to you, it is likely also very comfortable. I think that’s where we should be.
I’ve got a silly example for you, but I want to make a point by it, and that is this, when I go out for a date with my wife, we could sit across from each other and face each other. I actually like to sit kind of on the corner, like she’s on one corner, I’m on the other corner really close to each other. So, it’s like we’re together. Or even if we’re talking about something because to me, there’s this like, what do we call it? Like the subconscious communication or the communication of body language, it’s nonverbal cues, like so many things exist. And so, even in sales, in a sales capacity, meeting with people, I really do try to have that corner approach where it’s not being across the table.
Christine McKay: It’s so funny you say that because I sit that way with my husband too. And I was at a meeting the other day and I was leading the meeting. And people usually expect me to sit at the head of the table, which I never sat at the head of the table, or sit in the center on one of the sides. And I sat at, like, here’s the head of the table and I sat at the seat right next to it.
So, I have this amazing view of all the participants. I can see everybody. I still have the ability to kind of direct and influence where conversation is going, but most importantly, I have the ability to see everybody. I get to see how people react to different things and being able to be in an observant position without being in a dominating position is I find to be very, very useful in negotiation. And it’s something I learned very early in my career, working mostly in Southeast Asia, and I’ve held that, I’ve just taken that with me everywhere.
Justin Donald: That’s awesome. Let’s go beyond. So, you went back early in your career. Let’s go earlier than that because from my understanding, you were at one point in time pregnant and homeless at 19 years old, which had to be just an incredibly scary time or situation. I’m unsure, maybe you’re more confident than the rest of us. I feel like at that point in life, about to be a parent, unsure where you’re going to kind of settle down. That has to be uncomfortable and nerve-racking.
I’d love to hear how you kind of got to that spot and then how you got beyond it because now you’re conquering the world of business and you’re working with Fortune 500 companies. It’s really amazing. I would say, in general, what you’re doing is amazing. But being on the outs, being down for the count like you were, and then to come back as the underdog, that’s what really shines to me.
Christine McKay: Oh, thank you for that. It was, I mean, so I was 19, I had kind of done a year in college. I started hanging out with fraternities and sororities and I honestly started drinking too much. And behaviors just kind of unraveled my life, just kind of unraveled. And I did find myself pregnant and I had just lost my job. And I got evicted from the trailer that I was living in. And I lived kind of as what we in the United States call is part of the hidden homeless.
So, I didn’t always stay in the back of my car. I did a few times, but I mostly couch surfed a night here, a night there, I had no address. And you couldn’t get an assistance on welfare when you have no address at the time. And so, I was eating a can of soup a day and I lost tons of weight. And as I kind of became, I finally got a job at McDonald’s. And I lied to them. Well, I felt like I was lying to them because I didn’t tell them that I was pregnant, which just ate at me. It just practically destroyed me.
And I remember very vividly the day that I told my manager that I was pregnant and I was sobbing just uncontrollably because I thought they were going to fire me. And gratefully, they didn’t. And that allowed me to find a place to live. And I met this woman named Roxanne Yukon, who’s no longer with us. And she changed my life. She challenged me to write down a goal.
And the first time I went to the welfare office, they said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “I’m going to go to Harvard.” And they laughed at me. And I laughed at me and then I started doubting myself. Roxanne had helped me feel confident and gave me, even in my condition or my situation, I feel a level of surety about myself that just was completely zapped away for me when I went to that welfare office.
And so, in that doubt, I decided to abdicate my life to somebody else. And I gave somebody else decision-making authority over my life. And I had three kids at the age of 22 and my husband at the time, but he couldn’t support us. And I wasn’t allowed to work, I wasn’t allowed to go to school. But I was going through the garbage can to put gas in the car. I was doing my grocery shopping at a food bank. I was leaving the oven open in order to put heat in the house.
And finally, one day, I couldn’t feed one of my kids and I was like, I’ve had enough. And so, I took a risk and I got into a community college and then got a 4.0 and a full scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, decided it was going to be easier on my own than with him, and took my kids, and we left. And from there, I was able to land an amazing job with what’s now Verizon. And I met the man of my life, the man of my dreams. And we’ve been together for almost 30 years now.
And then I started in international mergers and acquisitions, and that’s where I started to really hone my negotiation skills. But it was that journey where I had to learn how to ask for what I wanted, not just what I needed because we’re taught not to ask, we’re taught to give. We’re not taught how to receive very well. And so, I had to learn how to ask for what I wanted because I wanted more than just to get by, I wanted more than to just be another statistic on the welfare rolls. I wanted more for myself. I wanted more for my children.
And so, I set about creating it. And 11 years after, I told that welfare office I was going to Harvard. I started my first year at Harvard University for my MBA program and graduated two years later. So, it’s been an amazing journey. And the things that I’ve learned along that path have really informed how I negotiate, how I come to deals, what I’m willing to look at.
And when somebody says, “Is everything negotiable?” And I’m like, pretty much except for my values. Mountains, oceans, and waterfalls are not negotiable either, but they are navigable. And it’s because I’ve come from that journey that I’ve seen what’s possible, so many things are possible that we cannot conceive. And really effective negotiation is about being curious enough to explore what those possibilities are.
Justin Donald: That is just an incredible story. So inspiring. I just am blown away, Christine, to go from homeless to getting a great job to then getting into Harvard, not just Harvard, their MBA program. And then, on top of that, starting your own company, a mergers and acquisitions company. So, becoming an entrepreneur, I mean, that is a full 180, and it’s so neat.
And I got it, by the way, I have a confession to make. I’ve got a bunch of friends that graduated from Harvard. I don’t think I ever stood a chance of getting in. Maybe I could finagle my way into one of their programs now that is like a two-week or a four-week program, something like that. But I always wanted to have one of those Harvard shirts, but I didn’t feel like I should buy it because then people would think that I went to Harvard. But I always love when people wear it, I think it’s such a cool shirt. So, I just thought I’d throw that one out there for you.
Christine McKay: I think it’s hugely aspirational. So, for people, I mean, it’s a hard school to get into. And I love it, I get all excited when I see people wearing Harvard gear and all that. I think that’s awesome. So, I think you should get a Harvard shirt.
Justin Donald: I like it. Well, I figured the closest that I was really going to get is just to have a bunch of friends that went to Harvard. And I’m really good with that too. They’re all really smart. So, yeah, that’s cool. So, you then have this mergers and acquisitions company and you start working, like, who was your first client? What did that look like? What did that grow into you? Because at this point, you have done negotiating, some form of negotiations with half of the Fortune 500 companies, which is really just remarkable to even have the ability to have access, let alone actually transact deals, or do some sort of consulting with them.
I mean, we’re talking about the 500 largest companies in the United States, which just shows how relevant what you’re doing is. But I’d love to know, what that first company was like? And then how you grew because it had to be nerve-racking at first, throwing out offers, like I hope they take this or I hope I sound professional or I know what I’m doing here because, at the beginning, people don’t have the confidence that you get only through experience. You can fake it, but you don’t really have it, at least that’s been my experience.
Christine McKay: So, in full transparency, I mean, I got to cheat a little bit because I started working for Deloitte Consulting after I graduated from Harvard. And so, I got to borrow the credibility of somebody else, which I think is a huge thing that entrepreneurs don’t think that they need to do. When you’re starting out as an entrepreneur, you don’t have that credibility. No matter what your pedigree is in the background and then your history, you’re out there selling to clients. And you have to borrow somebody’s credibility.
And so, I borrowed credibility. But within Deloitte, I did things that other people weren’t doing. So, I recognized that there was an opportunity. I was working on the largest mergers and acquisitions deal in Canadian history, and I was working on that. And somebody said something about contracts and I was like, “They can’t do that with the contract.” For some reason, I had gotten to see this agreement and I was like, “They can’t do what they think what they want to do.”
And so, in that moment, I decided I was going to create a new offering within Deloitte. And I had a partner. I remember his name, I remember what he looks like, and he’s like, “Nobody will ever buy that.” And then, a few months later, I had sold almost $18 million worth of business on this thing that I was told nobody would ever buy.
And what I learned, and as I was working with these big companies in part through Deloitte at the time, what I saw is I started to see how smaller businesses, small and mid-sized companies were at a huge disadvantage. I taught myself how to read contracts. I am not an attorney. And you know what? The thing is that many small businesses get a contract, and they go, here, they hand it off to their attorney. And I’m like most of what is in that agreement, your attorney doesn’t understand because attorneys are not business people. And the vast majority of what’s in a contract is business-related, not legal-related. And so, I created a methodology for how to look at contracts, how to assess value, how to assess risk.
And when I left Deloitte, I was like, which is I wonder if anyone would hire me to actually start going through these contracts. And the first company that hired me was a company that was a spinoff from a large technology company, is a $120 million revenue business. It sold just recently. And they grew to over $200 million in revenue. And when I was working with them in establishing their contracting practices and I was negotiating with pretty much every major company that you could name, I’ve negotiated with them in some capacity.
And I got so aggravated at these huge organizations. These enterprise companies would slide a contract across the table and say, “Sign here.” And I’d say, “That’s not how we do this.” And they’d say, “Well, we don’t negotiate with companies your size.” And I’m like, “It’s a $120 million company. It’s not like chump change.” Like, “We don’t care. We don’t negotiate with you.”
And so, I started to create a way of approaching these businesses, knowing that that’s what they were going to say, and then flipping that and essentially doing a judo flip on it and saying, “No, we’re changing the nature of this. We’re not playing this game the way that you want to.” And so, when people talk to me now about what do you do? I’m like, “I help people understand when they’re being had, when they’re being played, and then what to do about it.” It’s like one thing to know I’m being played, and then it’s like, okay, now, what am I going to do about being played? And what’s my response and reaction going to be?
And so, we level the playing field for our clients when we do that. And it’s pretty exciting and it’s not just in mergers and acquisitions. We work with customers and suppliers too, really kind of helping those smaller organizations level the playing fields. I have a client right now who’s selling their business, and they thought it was worth X. They thought they’d sell it for X, and we’re about to close the deal at almost five times what they thought it was going to be worth and what they thought they’d get out of it. And that’s what I love to do. I’m a magician at helping people find more value in their relationships.
Justin Donald: I love hearing that. That is just fantastic and interesting beyond all belief, Christine. It’s funny because when I was in college, I went to the University of Illinois, and Deloitte came on campus and did this thing. It was like a consulting program as college students. And so, I actually thought there is a chance I may end up working with Deloitte. I really enjoyed that program. And consulting kind of, let’s call it mini consulting, it was just a cool experience to kind of work with them and work with their team.
And so, I thought that that might be the direction that I went and I had some friends that ended up doing that, and all had great things to say about working there at Deloitte. And in fact, the building that’s right next door to me, literally, like I can look at it from here out my window is Deloitte here in downtown Austin.
Christine McKay: There you go. I learned so many things and met so many amazing, amazing people. And it was a very valuable experience. I walked away with a lot of very valuable experiences, so.
Justin Donald: Yeah, and it’s great when you have expertise where you can really offer tremendous value. So, one of my private clients was in the process of selling his company, and I wasn’t sure really what– at first, unsure if he wanted to sell, then unsure if he wanted to sell everything and at what value, and just threw some simple tweaks to an agreement, just some simple mindset shifts. We were also able to increase the sale of his company by over $40 million, which is significant.
And by the way, it was simply this, I mean, the biggest thing that was the shift was, well, what do they want? Like, what’s the most important thing to them? Because when we have clarity around what they value most and we can offer that up, then generally, they can be a lot more negotiable on the other terms that might be more valuable to you. And I think most of the time, it’s not the same terms that each side values. Usually, it’s different terms. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that and some experiences you’ve had there.
Christine McKay: Absolutely. I mean, for me, there are three basic steps to every negotiation. You have to assess, ask, and then act. Those are the three things. But assessment, people get hung up on it because those kind of– think about what they want, but they actually, usually only have a superficial view of what it is that they really want. So, they don’t have clarity. I love that you use the word clarity. They don’t have real clarity on what it is that they want.
And then you do have to have an understanding of your counterpart. You have to be able to assess what you think your counterpart needs and wants to be successful, but you also have to assess situation that you’re negotiating. If you are in supply chain right now, if you’re doing anything with supply chain, you have to assess what the existing situation is related to the current issues going on in the world over supply chain.
I had somebody who’s in my network who two weeks before the pandemic, before California shut down, he signed a 10-year commercial lease on restaurant space, didn’t assess the situation very effectively. So, you have to assess yourself, you have to assess your counterpart, and you have to assess the situation. But the problem is when people assess their counterparts, the whole idea is to develop a set of assumptions.
And I’ll ask people when you’re at the negotiation table, who’s the most important person at the table? And people will say, “Well, I am. Well, I am. Well, I am.” And I’m like, “No,” because you should know everything there is to know about you when you get to the negotiation table. All you have are assumptions about your counterpart. And it’s about testing your assumptions, evaluating what you thought was right and accurate with what’s really right and accurate.
Asking really effective questions that get you more information because no matter how– I’m a very transparent negotiator, I joke with people that I’m negotiating with and I say, “If you literally read my book or watch any podcasts I’ve been on, you will know exactly how I negotiate.” And I am super transparent about what I can and can’t do, what ranges are. I just find that cutting to the chase just makes it so much easier. The challenge is that goes back to what we talked about earlier.
Most of my counterparts have been taught that if they’re negotiating for something, it’s worth 100. And if they give me 10, there’s only 90 left for them to have. And if they give me 60, there’s only 40 left for them to have. So, they’ve lost. And people ask, “What do you think of win-win?” And I’m like, “Well, let’s play this out. If I say stop, you say go. If I say left, you say right. If I say yes, you say no. When you say lose, win-win is not a natural concept.” And so, if we think about, I mean, there’s actually research out there that shows that 100 that people think they’re negotiating for is actually more likely to be 142. There’s usually roughly 42% more value available in any business deal than we actually think there is.
So, instead of negotiating for that 100, let’s explore and discover what the other 42% of value looks like and how do we both get to partake in that additional value as well? And that changes how you think about that conversation, but you can’t get there if you haven’t really taken time to understand and evaluate what’s important to your counterpart.
Justin Donald: Yeah, and that really doesn’t matter with the size of the deal. Like these are just foundational concepts regardless of, maybe when you first started it, you were in the thousands of dollars and then the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I know you worked yourself up to doing a deal that was $2.4 billion. So, you’ve done billion-dollar deals, you’ve done thousand-dollar deals.
And so, it’s so important to recognize, to be curious, and to figure out what people want. What are they after? And the way I can see you having more like 142%, when you have some sort of negotiation, you’ve got this other company, you’ve got this other business, I mean, there are just so many other levers that you can pull where adds value outside of the immediate transaction that it’s in, or it’s even relationship capital where you create a good relationship and then you can do future business.
So, one of the things that I’ve learned, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, too, is the less I try to optimize, like if I’m in this and it’s me against you and I’m trying to get the best deal I can, Christine, and I’m trying to max it out, I’m trying to optimize it or maximize it, well, that does probably create that win-lose situation because I’m trying to win at the expense of everything. But what if the mindset was, hey, let’s create a good situation that we both feel great about? If we don’t, we don’t have to move forward, but I bet we can figure out where we can do that and I can give or it doesn’t matter as much to me and you can give.
And then when that happens, there’s like repeat business that can happen, there’s this reciprocity that happens, there’s this goodwill that happens. And so, for me, personally, I’ve just had multiple deals, multiple transactions with the same people because of having a good relationship and trying to create good outcomes. And I’d love to know what that looks like in your world where, like are these one-offs, or is there more business, or is that word of mouth? I mean, I would assume that the word of mouth inside of some of these communities is everything.
Christine McKay: Word of mouth is huge. And being able to deliver is, I mean, that’s just a big thing to be able to figure out whether it’s an M&A deal like the one I described earlier, whether it’s helping somebody who’s really out over their skis and kind of struggling to stay afloat, negotiating with their supplier, and reducing liabilities by 74% and still keeping them as a supplier and helping that company stay in business for another seven years. They ultimately sold for $150 million to a Fortune 500 company.
And so, it is a combination. So, we end up doing a lot of one-offs, but we get lots of, oh, my gosh, if you need this, if you’re in this position, then you’ve got to do this because we do a– you got to talk to Christine, you got to talk to Venn Negotiation because what happens is that we come in and we often work with people who are in distressed relationship situations, where they’ve tried and it’s just not getting anywhere. And the relationship is now kind of buckling, or where you’ve got somebody who’s perceived as having a lot of power or a leverage, which that’s always an interesting conversation because in my personal view, everybody has power and leverage that’s roughly equal unless you choose to give it away. And that’s a conscious choice to say, I don’t have power, I don’t have leverage. Well, you’re choosing to give it away. There are always alternatives in the market that give you power and leverage if you understand what they are.
And so, we have a lot of partnerships. I do a lot. I love working through CPAs, actually, and CFOs. In larger organizations, CFOs and COOs, those are the ones who are living with the deals. So, they get to see all the ugly warts. They get to see that, oh my God, sales sold this deal and it sucks. It’s like not profitable. This customer is hounding our customer service people. People are quitting because of this particular customer. We’ve had to change our standard operating procedures. Oh, my God, they’re influencing our strategy now. What the actual heck is going on here? We can’t keep doing this. And that’s because kind of sales and procurement kind of work in a backwards way. They get contracts too late in the process, and sales is throwing out price without really understanding what the cost of servicing that customer is going to be.
And so, we come in to help in those distressed situations a lot of times when somebody is beating their head against the wall and battered and bruised and bloodied, and they’re like, we can’t fix this because one of the challenges is a lot of people think when I’m doing speaking, I’ll ask people, who loves negotiation? And invariably, hands get shot up, like really, really fast. And I’m like, you probably are not very good at it because people who are really good at negotiation actually don’t love doing it 100% of the time. There are times when it’s really nerve-racking. And a good negotiator’s going to say, “I love negotiating depending on the situation.”
As a negotiator, I don’t always love negotiating. I would never, ever want to negotiate a hostage situation. Don’t ever put me in that role. I would suck at that because I actually love emotion in negotiation. Emotion, we’re such emotional beings that I would lose my mind if I had to negotiate in binary situations. And I’m always trying to fix things and find creative ways. And that’s why I love business negotiation because it lends itself to hypercreativity, whereas hostage negotiations or situations where their binary outcomes don’t lend themselves to hypercreativity. Yeah, so that’s kind of how we work, people bring us in, CPAs, CFOs, COOs are primarily where we come in through.
Justin Donald: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And when I think about some of the groups and companies and people that I’ve negotiated with over the years, generally, we can get to a good point. Sometimes, it is really difficult to get a deal done without having a third party or a couple of third parties that can kind of help with the communication, especially if it gets emotional, especially if it’s personal. Maybe you started this company, and so you’re emotionally attached to it. So, it becomes hard to let it go in the moment.
I mean, there are a lot of partners that have basically a bad breakup. There are a lot of these, but even with companies that say that they don’t negotiate, it is totally not true. They all negotiate. And if you ask the right questions and if you develop a good relationship with the people that you’re negotiating with, there is room to work because they do also want to get a deal done.
Now, they probably want to get it done on their terms, but if they really want it bad enough, then they’ll be willing to massage the terms. And I think it’s important to know that. And then it’s something that you’ve said, which I agree with, is this whole idea of empathy. That’s like one of the superpowers in negotiating. Obviously, it’s a superpower in a relationship. And you’ve talked about how negotiation is a relationship, negotiating with someone that’s a relationship with someone. So, by proxy, having empathy is going to help that cause. And I’d love to hear you talk about that a little more.
Christine McKay: I think it’s huge. And for so many years, we’ve been told it’s not personal, it’s just business. Well, I call bullsh*t because it is personal, and we are emotional creatures. And one of my most hated sayings on the planet is, control your emotions or manage your emotions. And my view is, stop trying to control your emotions, feel them, acknowledge them, label them, name them and label them, and then decide how you’re going to react to them.
For example, I was on a call, this was a few months ago. It was kind of astonishing. But you don’t see a lot of women, and you see a lot of women in academia who teach negotiation, but I rarely encounter women at the table with me. Once in a while, but not as often as I would like to. And so, I was negotiating with this guy. We were on Zoom, and he made a sexual comment followed immediately by, I don’t understand why anyone would ever hire a woman as a negotiator.
Well, I can tell you, I started to feel something. I’ll let you figure out what I was feeling, but I started to feel something. I noticed that I was feeling it. And I said, “All right, I’m feeling this way. This is how I would typically react in this situation. Will that serve me right now?” No, that won’t. So, what are you going to do instead? What action are you going to take on this feeling?
But the feeling is important because it informs a whole lot of aspects, a whole lot of things about what this relationship is going to be and going to look like. So, instead of reacting to this person who was clearly trying to get me to react, I said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” No, go ahead. “What reaction were you hoping to achieve by making those statements?” Totally did not expect that, freaked him out. I called him out, but I gave him an opportunity as well. It wasn’t just like I was like, you’re an as*. I was like, without saying, you’re an as*, you’re an as*, but I gave him an opportunity to do something different with it.
And by giving him an opportunity, giving him a shovel to dig himself out of the situation, we were actually able to move forward with that conversation without any animosity whatsoever. And it gave me a great story because that stuff happens all the time. There is no way that we can be in a situation where we’re talking about things that are important to us. As soon as we want something from somebody, our emotion is immediately engaged before our mouth ever is engaged. We react, we feel emotionally before we can react logically. It’s just the fundamental way the brain works.
So, acknowledge that you’re feeling something and be transparent about it. I have literally said in negotiation, well, that thing you just said, actually, I’m feeling a little frustrated about that because of these reasons. Now, I’m not sure that that frustration was your intent, but can we work through that? And by doing that, by being transparent about that emotion and giving my counterpart, the freedom and the latitude to do the same thing with me, so I pay very close attention to how somebody reacts to something I do or say.
And I’ll actually say, I’m not sure that hit the way that I intended it. Did it land in a different way? This was my intent with that statement. Did it land that way? Or did it land some other way? Now, I’m giving my counterpart the opportunity to say, “Yeah, no, that did not land the way that you intended it.” All right, how do we work through that? We’re problem-solving together. And if we can problem solve at an emotional level like that, using logic to frame our emotions to help us establish what the next steps, next right action is going to be, oh, my God, we’ve just completely opened up totally different worlds of what that relationship can be like. And that is what’s exciting to me about the work that I do.
Justin Donald: That was such a clutched question that you asked in that moment, which I think has many applications, but wow, way to turn that around. What were you trying to accomplish when you made that comment? I love that. I feel like that has so many legs, so much usefulness.
Something else that we both think is really important. And I’d love to get more of your perspective on it. The non-verbal cues, there’s so much communication that happens outside of the words, and we both know that often, the words are not true. They’re not an accurate representation. A lot of times, people are literally just paying lip service to whatever that they feel in the moment they need to play lip service to. So, how are you assessing? In person, I think it’s often a lot easier, but we live in a zoom world or a virtual world where we have to be able to assess this either way. A lot of it probably translates through pretty similarly, but I’d love your perspective here because I think this is part of what makes you a great negotiator, is that you can pick up on these cues and you can use those to your advantage.
And by the way, when I say use them to your advantage, use them to create a successful partnership, a successful transaction. So, it’s not like you gaming them, it’s you using towels to help get the thing done that everyone wants to get done.
Christine McKay: But most people go into negotiation believing that their counterparts are out to screw them over. So, if you know that, and as a negotiator, I know that everyone that I’m engaging with, I have to assume that they think that I’m there to act not in their best interest. So, part of being effective at negotiating is getting them to get to the same side that you are, so that you’re not sitting across the table and that you’re bringing them.
And the nonverbals are huge. Listening, I always say it, is a full-body activity. Listening happens with more than just your ears. It happens with, like if you’re in person, if somebody walks into a room with a certain scent, a clone or perfume, the kind of scent that they wear communicates something about them. It’s a non-verbal clue about who that person is. The clothes that somebody wears communicate something about them.
I mean, I dye my hair funky colors. I mean, this is actually really tame right now. And I’ve done this for 23 years, I’ve colored my hair fun colors because it communicates something about me. It also is a little disruptive. It disrupts and changes how people think about what a negotiator is supposed to be like. But our nonverbal cues tell so much about us.
I’m a huge fan of Dr. Paul Ekman, who really pioneered some of the early research in microexpressions and how every human being involuntarily contorts our faces into certain looks that represent specific emotions. I was working in Panama City, Panama, and I was negotiating with a large global bank, and a regional bank that was buying the global bank’s operations. And we walked into the negotiation. I was the only non-Spanish speaker in the room, and they looked at me and started to communicate in English. I’m like, what the heck are you negotiating in English? I’m the lowest common denominator in this room right now. Do not negotiate in English just because there’s a lone English speaker here.
I have a team of people who are all Spanish speaking, so please negotiate in Spanish. I will actually observe a whole lot more than you actually think I will. And it was amazing what one person might look at as a handicap turned out to be hugely beneficial to our team because I literally could pay attention to microexpressions. When somebody would say something, I could tell if somebody thought was just– had total contempt for that person. I could evaluate how the other team worked and what they thought of each other, not just what they thought about what we were proposing. It changed, it added so much texture to the conversation, and we were able to debrief in a very different way because I was like, “You said this thing, and I know enough Spanish that I could pick up on keywords. You were talking about this.” And boy, this person did not react favorably to that at all.
And my teammate would go, “Oh, my God, I totally miss that.” And we were able to come up with different sets of questions that then we could ask to probe, what about that was uncomfortable for that person, or what was contemptuous about it? And so, nonverbal cues are huge in negotiation. The problem is, is that we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to pay attention even when we’re talking. If I’ll do an exercise and when I’m teaching, I do an exercise where I’ll have usually the most talkative person in the group ask a question, and then that person can’t say anything for 3 minutes.
Usually, by 30 seconds, that person is fidgeting in their chair by a minute. They’re practically leaning. There’s like so far leaned in, they’re leaning over the table. They start at 2 minutes, they are going crazy if they can last that long. They’re mouthing words by that point. And then invariably, somebody in the group waits until that 2 minutes and 30 seconds before they actually offer input into the conversation. And if that person who asked a question had opened their mouth, we would have lost the value of that last person’s contribution.
And that’s how I feel about negotiation, that ability to– and I tell people, cross your fingers if you’ve got something to say, sit on your hands, do something physical to restrain yourself from saying something. I’ll still sit in negotiation and cross my fingers to go, okay. I had to shut up. I want to say something, but I’m going to shut my mouth right now because that last 30 seconds is a huge component.
And so, reading nonverbal cues and giving space, the value of the language is in the silence in between the notes, the value of music. Listen to the silence between the words that are being said, because that’s where the value, that’s where the richness of the value of that conversation sits.
Justin Donald: That’s very insightful. And one of the things I was thinking about, and you said this about your hair, so I love all the microexpression stuff, Christine. You were talking about your hair, and it made me think of just this whole concept of pattern interrupt. So, you show up looking different than what someone expects you to look, and that interrupts their way of thinking, and there are also these things that we can do in a negotiation where we can disrupt. So, maybe, if tensions are kind of rising, one of the things I like to do is add some humor that kind of just lets the tension out, kind of lets the air out. What are other strategies or pattern interrupts that you have seen work or that you utilize and teach people?
Christine McKay: I like to have a little inflatable ball, not a big one, but a little one that I’ll just kind of tap across the table to somebody and people are just like, what the heck was that? And then, when we’re in person and then we’ll play a little bit. When we’re on Zoom, it’s a little bit different to do some of that. One of the great things about Zoom, and to be honest, because I’ve done a lot of negotiations with large companies, many large enterprise companies have distributed negotiation teams. So, I’ve actually been doing negotiation on video conference or audio for years and years and years.
Zoom is actually a great equalizer. And we’re all the same height on Zoom. There’s no intimidating personality that’s towering over me because I’m actually short. So, somebody walks in who’s 6’5, and I’m like, oh, crap. It’s like, there’s that big personality and that big persona, that essence of somebody who walks in, the people who walk into a room and suck the oxygen right out of it. You don’t have that on Zoom.
So, Zoom is actually a huge equalizer. Cloudflare did a study of its people to see what the impact of Zoom was, and they found that it was an equalizer for women and people of color to have greater opportunities to speak up. But having pattern interrupts on Zoom, I mean, there’s all the things you can put, pig ears on and funky hats, and you can do different things like that. Changing your background randomly, doing a moving background, things like that can be useful to help to alleviate tension.
Having gone to Harvard where we’ve obviously studied the book Getting to Yes a lot since it was written by a bunch of Harvard professors, they talk about going to the balcony. And one of the things to do for a pattern interrupt is simply to take a break. I am huge on doing breathing exercises and I do it, I do qigong practice all the time and have a master instructor. And that’s huge for me. Before I do any negotiation, I carve out half an hour before I go into any conversation so that I can do breathing in meditation so that I’m in the right frame of mind.
And if I need a pattern interrupt, I will use the effects of Zoom, I’ll use going to the balcony to take a break, or I’ll use a question. I’ll pull a question that’s completely random and completely off-topic. And I’ve done that before, where I actually bought two cars. I walked into a dealership one year, this is a number of years ago, and I made an offer to buy two brand-new cars, but I was only going to pay for one of them.
And tensions ran really high with the manager. He was really ticked off at that. He was feigned being very insulted and very offended and all that good stuff. And it was a Friday night and it was date night. And I looked at my husband, I was like, it’s a date night. It’s time to go. I’m done being at a car dealership on a Friday night. And then I looked at the manager and I said, “Well, you’re working on Friday night.” I went, “You must have tomorrow off. What are you doing this weekend?”
And turns out he ran dog sleds and he was doing a dog sled race. And I was like, “Oh, I’m from Montana.” We talked about the Iditarod winner. And we had poodles, and poodles were controversial that year. And they banned him in the Iditarod. And so, he started this whole– and it was a total pattern interrupt. And then, we were able to build a different kind of a relationship so that I could come in and say, so now what are we going to do about these cars? Here’s why I think that it is actually a good deal for you to sell me two cars for the price of one. And I walked him through my math and I was wrong in one part of my math so I made adjustments. So, we bought two brand-new cars for the price of one, plus $5,000, but you can use effective questions as a tool for pattern interrupt as well.
Justin Donald: That’s incredible. I’m going to need to have you teach me that trick. I like that.
Christine McKay: I actually just told that story at an event, and there was a guy who owns multiple dealerships in the audience. And he came up to me after and he said, “You could totally do that.” He’s like, “Totally doable.”
Justin Donald: Oh, I love it. And I love your whole idea of Zoom being the great equalizer. I think a lot of people probably didn’t look at it that way, and I don’t know if I ever looked at it that way, but it sure is. I mean, that is very wise. I love it. So, Christine, tell us a little bit about your book. You’ve got a great book out, Why Not Ask? And then tell us a little bit about Venn Negotiation and VennMasters because I want people to be able to find you and find what you’re doing.
Christine McKay: Awesome. So, Why Not Ask? is a book that just literally takes that Harvard, homeless, and beyond story. And it’s super practical and it’s a very conversational book, a very easy-to-read book about my philosophy on negotiation. It’s full of tips and things that you can apply the moment that you read the book. And that’s hugely important to me that you can take action on what is talked about in the book. And so, I’m super excited about it. We’re getting ready to release the audiobook this next month. And so, I love it. So, you can check it out. It’s available on Amazon.
And then Venn Negotiation, we do training programs for individuals and businesses. We have two major programs. One is Negotiation 101, the basics, which is a two-day event that we go through kind of all the specifics of negotiation. It really builds on this concept of helping you not get played in your negotiation. So, we tell you the games that people play in a negotiation so that you can unravel them, the things around talking about anchoring and as a game and mirroring as a game and good cop, bad cop as games, and what are the games people do and what are some of the things you can do to help defuse those things?
And then our VennMasters program, it is a practice intensive program. It is all about getting feedback, doing negotiation, getting feedback on your negotiation because we all learn to negotiate when we’re little kids. Seven-year-olds are the best negotiators on the planet, but there’s research that shows that starting at eight, we quit asking for what we want in certain situations.
And we don’t have people telling us, we assume that if we get a signed contract, that means I successfully negotiated. But in three years, when that deal is killing your profitability and killing your people, was it really a good deal? Did you really get to evaluate how effective you were at negotiating or not? And the answer is probably no, you didn’t get a good chance to evaluate its effectiveness. So, our VennMasters program is really about taking pragmatic negotiation skills and tactics and applying them and getting direct and immediate feedback on that.
Justin Donald: Oh, that’s great. Well, I’m excited to share some of this in the show notes. I think this has been just really an outstanding show. I want to thank you for your time and your expertise and your wisdom. This is just so much fun, and we’re in so much alignment in just negotiating in general. And I’ve learned some really cool stuff today from you, so thank you. And I want to wrap things up today the way I do every single session that we get together and that’s this. What’s the one step that you can take today to move towards financial freedom and towards really a life that you desire that’s not by default, but by design. I’ll catch you next week.
Christine McKay: Thanks, Justin.