The negotiator personality: Sheep, fox, donkey or owl?

I recently posed the question “Are you a cognitive or intuitive negotiator?” to a group of experienced negotiators and teaching professionals. We participate in the Expert Negotiator online threaded discussion at on a regular basis. The responses were quite varied and interesting.

When we say someone is “cognitive” we are referring to an individual who is left brain dominant. Someone who is identified as “right brain” dominant is apt to be more intuitive. How do you know which one you are? Here are some clues that will assist you in determining your and others’ approach and style.

Left Brainers can be trained in the skill of active listening and empathy to become very effective negotiators. Right Brainers can be trained in the same skills, but because they have more innate ability to recognize and articulate affective cues on the other side they become great negotiators.

Certainly some people with a higher Emotional Quotient can more easily become good or excellent negotiators. Emotional Quotient is sometimes also referred to as “Emotional Intelligence”‘ and is like IQ, except with respect to emotions and empathy, not intelligence. They just naturally “get” the other person and can adjust their position accordingly. Other people really have to work at it.

One would conclude that the best negotiators are those who have both a natural emphatic talent and also excellent cognitive skills that they apply to the situation.

Another participant in the discussion submitted that there is evidence from the research performed by professor Gavin Kennedy in his book “Is Everything Negotiable?” that people are divided in to four negotiating behaviors. Sheep, who are very cooperative, usually obtain bad results when negotiating with selfish, aggressive negotiators, Foxes. There are also Donkeys, who are stubborn and won’t move off a position. Finally, there are Owls, who are wise and tend to outsmart their prey.

But having a good EQ doesn’t necessarily mean cooperativeness. The people with high EQs are in control of their emotions, and that’s great for negotiations. So, you can conclude that people with a high EQ don’t automatically make more concessions than necessary.

Let’s look at each behavior in detail. We usually behave like a Donkey when we don’t know what we can possibly gain in negotiating. Donkey-like behavior is often found in someone who has a predictable capacity for stubborn defiance and a large ego. What he or she gets (usually not a lot) is not good enough to consider the negotiation a success. All the negotiating decisions the person makes are based on his or her deep, sometimes irrational “principles.” We must understand the short and long-term implications of our decisions.

As a negotiator, you are behaving like a Sheep when you think that whatever you get is acceptable and when you easily accept the other parties’ choices as your own. There is some pragmatic flexibility in you, but too often you are influenced by others and don’t know how or don’t wish to fight for your own interests. You prefer to agree with the other party to the negotiation rather than annoy or disappoint that person. You value the relationship more than the outcome of the negotiation. Here Professor Kennedy states, “Like the proverbial goose, a ‘boo’ sends you scampering for cover.” Sheep negotiators are scared of their own shadow and are known to withdraw when the negotiation gets heated.

A Fox truly knows what is going on and deeply believes he deserves what he demands. Some Foxes only succeed because of their sharpness and even ruthless cruelty. On top of that, Foxes love to look smart and sometimes misread the game because they are too arrogant and excited about the process. There are few limits to a Fox’s pragmatism and he or she is amazing at exploiting the soft bellies of the Sheep. People who make Donkey-like decisions are of course easy prey for the Fox. As Professor Kennedy states, “Devious is as devious does.” But in the long-term the Fox negotiator fails to build trust, resulting in a failed relationship. As a negotiator, you will choose not to negotiate with the Fox again.

Finally, Owls are those who are wise enough to spot the long-term benefits of building genuine relationships and trust that those relationships will in the future provide them with the results they truly deserve. As an Owl, the negotiator is always aware and prepared for the opportunities and threats that result from the choices he selects when negotiating. You earn respect from your peers for what you do and how you do it (you certainly don’t exploit Sheep, Donkeys and Foxes). Be careful, as Professor Kennedy states, “All negotiators should beware: many Owls are closet Foxes!”

Now that you are aware of the four behaviors, you need to pose a number of questions to yourselves. First, when you are sitting at the negotiating table, who are you? More importantly, what behavior can you expect from your negotiating partner? Are you truly prepared for those behaviors? Each of us needs to answer these questions and invest time researching our negotiating partner prior to sitting down with him or her, so we don’t run into a Fox in Sheep’s clothing.

Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president and chief executive officer of SMA LLC and The Negotiating Edge Coaches & Trainers. He can be reached at (414) 352-5140 or

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