Business Negotiations – Parallels with Texas Hold’em Poker

Recent lapses in blog posting have been a result of traveling overseas. I’m currently in China participating in some high level business negotiations. As a former semi-professional online poker player, I’ve found a number of parallels between business negotiations and poker.

1. Both are games of Partial Information

At the inception of any new business relationship, there will always be some hesitancy in the sharing of information. As the relationship deepens, more and more information is shared. However, at no point will all information be shared. In both scenarios, parties playing optimally will make decisions based on a limited data set, making assumptions for information which cannot be confirmed. Poker players do this by analyzing a hand range, or a set of hands that the opponent could possibly have.

Extra information can be gained in a number of ways. In business negotiations, parties may choose to perform due diligence to gain an information advantage. Quid pro quo information exchanges can help one party gain an advantage if the information being given has less value than perceived by the other party. In poker, players may analyze previous hands to determine betting and sizing patterns, or physical tells. Poker players often engage in ‘table talk,’ the use of speech to elicit a verbal or physical reaction that may cause the opponent to unintentionally reveal information.

2. Information Valuation is essential

While the scale of the information may be different, it is crucial for successful players to understand the value of their information. In a business negotiation, falling revenue streams would be extremely valuable information that should not be relinquished easily. A poker player making a bluff certainly would not reveal his cards to his or her opponent.

Information valuation extends beyond valuation of your own assets. Parties must successfully evaluate the value of their opponent’s assets as well. This may seem obvious in business, as many deals involve extensive valuations of the other party’s assets. Poker players attempt to judge how valuable their opponent thinks their hand is.

However, this is still a very shallow view. Experienced poker players will understand not only their opponent’s valuation of their own hand, but the relative value of their chips relative to the value of their hand. Different players will have different views of chip values. Wealthier players may value their chips less than poorer players. This analyses is important for successful negotiations as well. The other party’s valuation of its own assets should be the basis of negotiations, not your own valuation of their assets. If my desire for your asset is high but your desire for your own asset is low, I would be remiss to to pay a high cost for your asset.

3. Empathy allows parties to gain more information

To fill in gaps in information, assumptions are made in unclear areas. These assumptions can be sharpened by evaluating the situation from the shoes of the other party. In both business and poker, it’s important to understand the thought processes of the other parties in order to understand how they value different assets. An obvious empathetic gain would be to understand that a drunk poker player is likely to value his chips more for their entertainment value than their monetary worth. A prudent poker player would realize that his opponent may be less risk adverse and try to give opportunities for the opponent to gamble at a lower expected value.

While drunk businessmen may be a common sight, prudent businessmen will obviously avoid situations where their judgment will be impaired. Nonetheless, crucial pieces of information can still be gained. As business negotiations deepen, parties will find themselves more and more familiar with other parties. An indication that one party may be fired if a deal does not go through is an obviously valuable piece of information that can only be gained through empathy.

4. Emotional Detachment is important to success

Human beings naturally incorporate emotions into their everyday decisions. While some are certainly more easily influenced by emotion than others, any claiming immunity from emotion in decision-making are delusional or some sort of advanced robot. In the previous discussion of empathy, the employee who may be fired if a deal does not go through should not allow this information affect his decision in the negotiations process. In the same vein, a poker player should not allow his or her anger at a previous hand to cause him to gamble out of frustration.

This emotional detachment is obviously difficult for all humans. At the poker table, there are few mechanisms that will help deal with emotional stresses.When I was playing online poker extensively, I would change my computer background to simple text such as “Relax, poor decisions will lose money in the long run.” To disconnect me from the value of the money, I would surround my monitor with sticky notes with notes like “A big blind is just a tool.” However, the most important tool by far was my network of friends, poker playing and otherwise who would provide support during runs of bad luck.

While emotional impact on business negotiations is generally more subtle, it is still important to build teams who will be capable of preventing you from allow emotion to affect your decision-making. This can only occur through the allowance of open, honest discourse. If a team member fears your wrath, he or she may neglect to alert you of a bias that you are not accounting for in your own decision-making.

Information comes through diligent research. Understanding of value comes through extensive experience. Empathy and emotional detachment however are human traits. Some are of course naturally better than others. Nonetheless, these abilities can be strengthened through practice and team-building. Ultimately, these traits must be carefully balanced. The more empathy you have for someone, the more difficult it will be to make a decision that may harm them.

While all analogies are imperfect, there are many valuable lessons which can be learned at the poker table, although they may be more expensive then they are worth.

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