Negotiation lesson learned in the oddest of places

By JJ Rosen July 19, 2021
people shaking hands

This column originally appeared in The Tennessean

I knew I was in trouble when I pulled into the parking lot.

I took a deep breath and hopped out of the car.  This was not my scene.

My young kid laughed and said, “Dad…you left your sword in the back seat.”  As I doubled back to retrieve my plastic weapon, I was tempted to start up the car and drive away, leaving my son to fend for himself.  But something in me (mainly Dad’s guilt) pulled me back. I guess this was something I had to do.

Taking a medieval long-sword fighting class had never been on my radar in the past.  Before this summer, I never even knew such a thing existed.

Yet here I was, pacing around a parking lot in Centennial Park with a group of sword-wielding strangers waiting for our class to begin.

Pressured by my kid who has developed a keen interest in medieval history, I had reluctantly agreed to sign both of us up for this odd class. With unsettling visions of “Lord of the Rings” in my head, I prepared myself for battle.

As the class started, I was surprised when the instructor stood up and said that he would be teaching us how to “negotiate”.

He explained that once we learned the basic footwork, offensive movements, and defensive positions, it would all come down to using them to negotiate with an opponent to determine who wins.

At work, the back and forth of negotiation is often associated with conflict and fears of being taken advantage of.  Haggling over prices, negotiating over contracts, manipulating and feeling manipulated makes negotiation not something most of us enjoy.

But in the context of learning how to sword fight (with plenty of padding and plastic weaponry), the negotiation process sounded kind of cool. Just like in business negotiations, there would be some give and take and some winning and losing. I was ready to dive in.

Over the next eight weeks, we learned when to “be on guard” and when to be more aggressive.  We learned that being too aggressive can backfire, giving your opponent easy opportunities to strike back. And by the same token, we were shown that being perpetually back on your heels is a sure way to lose a battle.

As our teacher pointed out (pun intended), a fencing match requires both parties to be patient. It takes time to understand your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and it’s better to wait for an opening rather than make a brash move.

From week to week, negotiation remained the central theme. If we wanted to be good sword fighters, we needed not only to develop our sword-wielding skills but gain experience at it.  He warned us that this would require each of us to deal with losing more than winning. But learning to lose with honor, ready to bounce back for the next match, is a skill in itself.

So, oddly enough, this obscure sword-fighting class turned out to be practical training for something that is difficult to learn from a book or a business school course.  It reminded me that negotiating is not just a skill but an art form that can be gratifying as I improve and grow. Learning to negotiate with a replica of an ancient long sword, for better or worse, was not all that different than learning to negotiate in a business setting.

As we finished up our last class, I asked my kid if he learned anything aside from how to swing a sword.  He said he learned that he had a long way to go to become a good negotiator but that he was going to stick (pun intended) with it. He then talked me into buying him an ice cream cone on the way home.

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