Poker and the Art of Negotiatingby Gregory Stebbins, EdD

History is full of examples where playing a game prepared a person for real life experiences. For example some research indicates that xiangqui, a Chinese form of chess played in the 2nd Century BC, helped leaders learn the art of war. Today, new research indicates that multi-player on-line games prepare employees for team work and analytical thinking.

While that’s not necessarily a reason to demonstrate leniency when you catch your workers playing games on-line during work hours, it may at least provide some side benefit to their work performance.

A little less high tech, though possibly even more complex, poker offers practice in some very valuable negotiating skills. Top-notch poker players “read” their opponents,  carefully observing subtle body language and other cues to pick up information that they will use to move  closer to their ultimate goal: winning. Master negotiators do the same. Your sales team’s ability to read their “opponent’s” actions is critical to getting the best deal they can.

Start with the basic fact that when a person does something that is unnatural for them, stress emerges. As human beings we may give off a number of different signals that we’re under stress. In poker these are called “tells.” Having a winning hand—the opportunity to win a pot of money—is often unnatural for an individual, and this causes stress. Weak hands cause a different kind of stress and require even more skill to bluff and see things through to a win.

There is a golden rule in poker that applies to negotiating as well: A strong opponent will try to act weak, while a weak opponent will try to act strong. Knowing this single basic tenet will give you and your people a significant edge over those who are not aware of it. Some observable behaviors that showcase the golden rule in negotiations are:

  • Acting Uninterested in a Deal While Still In It usually means that the person is negotiating from strength.
  • Hands Shaking or Trembling may be an indication that the person is excited about the deal and is often a signal that they are negotiating from strength.
  • Rapid Breathing is almost always a giveaway that the person is excited about the deal.
  • Sighing and Shrugging are often demonstrated by a person acting to cover a position of strength.
  • Staring Down Other Players is usually done by someone who is trying to appear strong, which probably means the person is negotiating from a position of weakness.
  • Holding One’s Breath is often done by inexperienced negotiators when bluffing. Essentially they’re waiting (holding their breath in anticipation) to see if the opponent will take the phony bait.

Some people playing poker will start to chatter and talk things up when they’re nervous. They will do the same thing at the negotiating table. Most master negotiators don’t have a lot of side conversations—they know that a slip of the tongue may give away their position. However, if they know that their opponent is weak, they may engage him or her hoping that the other person may give away their position. And, the weak party often does. So when the very shy quiet guy suddenly starts talking, it’s time to start watching closely. He or she wouldn’t be relaxed unless they were confident.

If your salespeople aren’t getting enough negotiation experience to be able to read another person’s “tells,” or if they don’t know what signals they, themselves, are giving off, perhaps it’s time to break out that deck of cards. If you do, I should add one additional point: If you’re playing poker for fun, you’ll often only have an ego investment in winning or losing. If you’re playing with your own money, you’ll have much more incentive to understand who you’re playing against or how you may be giving away the store. So it’s a good idea for the person you’re working with to have some skin in the game and know they have something to lose so they will pay closer attention to the opposition and genuinely demonstrate the behaviors that may give them away when negotiating.


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About the Author:

Sales Psychology Expert Gregory Stebbins has helped over 10,000 sales professionals become the point of differentiation while their competitors struggle with how to differentiate their product and service. In his book PeopleSavvy for Sales Professionals, he unveils for the first time his simple but groundbreaking plan to win your customers’ trust and business forever. Get your free sneak preview at