Skip to main content

In 1981, David Dingwall, a 28-year-old first time MP for Cape Breton, found himself representing the Liberal government in negotiations over funding with the legendary William "Bull" Marsh of the United Mine Workers. Determined to make an impression, Mr. Dingwall asked a lot of questions and demonstrated his knowledge of the facts whenever possible in their first encounter.

He figured he had done a good job, but at the end Mr. Marsh suggested they have a quiet word together. The union leader looked him in the eye and said, "When you speak, I listen. So next time when I talk, you better listen."

Actually, that's not an exact quote. As Mr. Dingwall recalls the incident in an interview, he adds the exact expletives the union leader used to make his point even more forcefully. And it remains memorable 35 years later for Mr. Dingwall, once a federal cabinet minister and now a lawyer and distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management. The story offers an example of one of the main negotiating pitfalls he fell into that day: Ego-creep. "If you are thinking just of yourself, then you're in trouble," he adds.

Story continues below advertisement

Top negotiators he interviewed for his book Negotiating So Everybody Wins repeatedly stressed that if you think you are the Expert on the subject being discussed it will lead to arrogance – and the other side will respond in kind. So quash any desire to prove something. Put the deal first, specifically what he calls your "mandate:" The goals you are seeking, along with how they are to be achieved (what concessions are acceptable) and your authority. Focus on the mandate, not your own internal needs.

Ego creep is one of five demons he identifies that bedevil negotiators. The others:


We all have biases against a person or an issue and need to be alert to them in negotiations. We also have to be careful we aren't trying to confirm our own positions and perspective in the discussions, avoiding important contrary information. Instead, actively listen and seek other views, testing your viewpoints against precedents and contrary arguments. Be patient as well. Relying on first impressions may anchor your outlook too early in the process. "Park your bias," he advises in the interview.


In the mid-1980s, wanting a new car, he took a silver Ford Taurus station wagon home to "try it out," as the salesperson had put it. The family was jubilant, and when he returned the car he wasn't looking for alternatives – just a quick deal. He had succumbed to his own neediness and was a flop in the ensuing negotiations. "If you telegraph your neediness to have an outcome or product or service, the other side will recognize it and plan accordingly," he notes. So exercise restraint. Distinguish between what you instinctively think or emotionally feel you need and what you actually need.

Naive realism

Story continues below advertisement

Often we believe that reality is exactly what we believe, the facts plain for everyone to see, and anybody rational will agree with us. That has been defined as "naive realism," and can trap you in negotiations, since often others will have different facts and a different version of reality. Instead, "step back, explain, and probe," he advises. Accept that the situation is complex, not as simple as you believe – no single version of reality exists. Respect the flexibility of facts, that they mean different things from different perspectives. And bestow on others the mantle of rationality – you are not the only person who can think and reason.


Doubt your assumptions – and the other side's assumptions. Trust the other side but also verify. A key element to clarify and not leave to assumptions is the authority of the negotiators on both sides. Can the other party essentially make a decision or does he or she have little authority and is just a messenger?

Beyond those demons, negotiations can also go astray over price. Don't get into numbers too early, as the other side will stop listening. Instead, communicate the value you are offering – so they understand the substance of your offer before you start talking price. And don't be ridiculous in your first offer or counteroffers; most negotiations are part of a continuing relationship and such extreme negotiation tactics backfire over the long term.

Negotiations are anything but simple. But he brings it back to these essentials: Prepare, know your mandate, be patient, and watch your behaviour for signs the five demons are at work.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to