Mori Taheripour teaches negotiation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she has taught undergraduates, MBA students, and MBA executives how to have better business conversations. Taheripour has also coached corporate clients, including on behalf of Goldman Sachs and Major League Baseball, on how to feel more confident and comfortable negotiating, a skill that everyone uses every day but tends to be viewed as a kind of dark art.
In one of the most high-profile negotiations in recent memory, centered around Elon Musk’s ongoing plans to buy Twitter, and know that many readers are negotiating on their behalf right now — for more time, more funding, a better exit package, less investor protections — we spoke with Taheripour earlier this week to ask where negotiations tend to falter and how to help them succeed. The following are excerpts from that conversation edited for length and clarity.
TC: You have been an expert in dispute resolution and negotiation for more than a decade. You also published a book on the subject during the pandemic that was well received. For people who haven’t read it yet, is the ability to negotiate well somewhat intuitive or completely learned?
It’s something you learn, and I really think most people are better negotiators than they think they are because we do it so much. It’s only when we look at negotiations through the lens of things that are really transactional and maybe conflictual that people put negotiations into a category of things that people don’t really enjoy or really fear or are really uncomfortable and want to put off. But any parent, anyone in a relationship, anyone with employees, anyone with a pet. . . he is probably very good at negotiations.
What are some of the most common mistakes people make when in a business-related negotiation process?
At the heart of all negotiations is the human connection. That’s where the magic happens. Most negotiations are not transactional. The best negotiations are either to nurture relationships we already have, or to create new ones. And once you see it that way, then negotiations become talk. Some conversations are more difficult than others. But it doesn’t have to 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.
He builds bridges. It’s getting closer to understanding. It is collaborative problem solving. It’s decision making. I always tell people that this is the last thing they should be afraid of.
Your book is about how to “negotiate fearlessly”, yet there is a fine line between being fearless and being overconfident. Any pointers for readers who may be wondering how to cross that line?
A lot of it goes back to negative self-talk and self-sabotage. You are not going to become a great negotiator just because you are smarter and have a higher IQ. Being a great negotiator really starts with getting out of your own way. Great negotiators are great storytellers who can see themselves from a position of value and fearlessly advocate for themselves.
If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t fearlessly understand your own worth, then the goals you set for yourself diminish. They become safe. They can also become mediocre. And once your goals are watered down and safe, then what you ask for will reflect those goals and you won’t get enough.
The moment you give up your power – you either give in to do the other [party] happy or to avoid conflict – then you can’t stay in the conversation. You need to be confident that you two are part of this conversation and your space is just as important as theirs. It does not mean that these two things are mutually exclusive. it means you look for mutually inclusive solutions.
For people in the M&A situation right now, how about never getting the first offer, pushing for 20% more? Is any of this really relevant?
The way I teach is not binding at all. I don’t believe in everything, and I don’t believe in never.
As we grow older, our instincts become stronger and our intuition and emotional intelligence become stronger. We should be using them 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 stress, especially because no negotiation is the same and the person sitting across from you, that audience, is always different.
Elon Musk seems to be trying to negotiate with Twitter, on Twitter, to either lower the price or get out of the deal or buy some time, who knows. Either way, the release of the conversation – or part of it – is apparently by design, and I wonder if this will become a kind of case study for future negotiations.
It plays by completely different rules. Five or 10 years ago, this would probably be a nightmare for shareholders and companies because you want to keep what’s going on until it’s all done and then release it. But what is quite traditional is that he controls his own story and the messages that come out are his own, however messed up.
If you think about it, he’s been testing the water for a lot longer than the six months since he proposed to buy Twitter. Every time he says anything about Tesla stock, the prices change. people react immediately. So I think he saw the power 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?
To be honest, I was incredibly surprised when the deal fell through – and there was the threat of legal action and things got messy and he tried to walk away. I thought sure if the deal was done [after that], the stock price or deal valuation would at least be much lower. Never [the deal was suddenly] back and it wasn’t lower, I was confused.
What I can tell you is that I don’t think Elon Musk does anything by accident. I think there was a lot of intent. Twitter is this incredible communication platform, and if you can control it one way or another, that’s a great power. For a man who somehow controls transportation, [and] the future of space, I don’t think he woke up one day and said, “Oh, maybe I should buy Twitter.” I think this has been on his mind for some time. And I think he obviously sees the value in it, maybe in a way that none of us can even imagine.