From bad guys to boardrooms: the art of negotiation

My story

From bad guys to boardrooms: the art of negotiation

After a high-flying career in international negotiations and crisis management, Stefan Kühn decided to forge his own path. After training at Harvard Law and with the CIA in the US , as well as the Metropolitan Police in the UK, Stefan founded International Negotiation & Conflict Resolution Systems (INCS) AG in Zurich, Switzerland, where he is now CEO and Partner. 

Here he gives us his insights into the human side of negotiations, from training overconfident CEOs to earning his family a hotel upgrade (whether they like it or not). 

How did you become a negotiator?

It started when I took over responsibility for a global crisis intervention team. As soon as I started working in the area, I was immediately gripped. I knew I wanted the scientific and research skills that would allow me to deepen my knowledge and understanding.  

Understanding how to deal with people always had been, and still is, what drives me. It fascinates me how you can bring people together to do something better than if they were on their own. And that’s the core of any negotiation: figuring out what parties can do together to accomplish a better result.

What surprises people about what you do?

Most people believe that they’re highly skilled negotiators – especially if you talk with male executive managers above 30. 85% of this target group believe they belong to the top 20% of negotiators in their field. So the prime hurdle we have in education and training is to make people aware that negotiation is not something you’re born with – you really need training to succeed. 

You studied with the CIA and Metropolitan Police, what lessons did they help you bring to business?

When you’re dealing with an aggressor, you’re still dealing with a human being who has underlying triggers and interests. The goal is to take as little time as possible to understand who you’re talking to. That means knowing what questions to ask to get the best results, which conversations will de-escalate when someone gets nervous, how to redirect the conversation from a specific threat…

In business life, we’re confronted by threats on a day-to-day basis. People will call and say “Either I have your report by 5 or I won’t do any business with you going forward”. That’s a threat. How do you respond? The interesting part is how many similarities there are. At INCS we can bridge that.  

Does being a professional negotiator make friends and family suspicious?

People often ask that question! The truth is that if you want to negotiate effectively, it’s all about preparation, tactics and knowing the process. As a private person I’m just like any other guy – I’m not automatically active and calculating negotiations. I don’t think I’d have many friends if I was! 

Sometimes my family does get embarrassed though. If I’m negotiating at a hotel to upgrade our room, my wife and daughters will wander off to avoid the situation. But when I get the room, they don’t turn around and say “Whoa! I want to downgrade to the standard room we booked!” Everyone’s happy with the whirlpool bath – they’re just embarrassed to negotiate for it.

Does the space you negotiate in affect the outcome?

Of course. It’s a psychological issue and it does matter. It also depends on how familiar you are with the place you’re negotiating in. People tend to be a little stronger on their home turf because they’re not as stressed. Not everyone’s triggered in the same way – some by noise, some by small rooms. If you can profile your negotiating partner you might be able to influence that.

What affected your office choice for INCS?

I tried to approach it from our clients’ perspective. I’m actually quite easy-going because of how much I travel, so I don’t mind too much how my office looks or where it is. For me it’s the people around me who are more important, so I really considered how the infrastructure would be for our clients – that was one of the reasons I chose Regus. 

You’re at the end of your first year of operation as INCS, what have been the biggest challenges?

Funnily enough when we teach clients, one of the most important biases we look at is overconfidence. People usually think they are better than they are! But actually we, as INCS, failed on this front too. We can teach the same biases, but as human beings we sometimes suffer from them too! 

It took a little longer than we expected at the beginning. We expected more feedback in the first three to four months. But now we’re really happy because things are moving. Looking back, we just have to laugh about how we fell into the most important bias we teach clients to avoid! Fortunately we spotted it very quickly and knew it was on our heads to take control and make it work. 

Stefan Kühn is Partner and CEO of INCS AG (Ltd), and is based in our Regus offices in Zurich, Switzerland. 

Top tips from Stefan:

  1. Be prepared if you talk, negotiate or mediate with someone. Being prepared is the most time-consuming part of any negotiation, and the most important, but many people go into meetings badly prepared.
  2. Really show empathy to the people or group of people you’re talking to. Be aware that you’re talking to human beings with their own story and perspectives. People will always appreciate empathy, even if you have a different view or a disagreement.
  3. Try to find the key interest of the people you’re dealing with. Usually if two people negotiate they make demands, but those demands are just a kind of statement: the key issue is the underlying interests.