Know When to Hold ‘Em: Drawing Lessons in Negotiations from Poker

Negotiation is a soft skill and as a result it requires both training and real world experience to improve. Negotiation principles rely on strong habits, relationship building, and being able to adjust strategies on the fly. 

As managers and sales leaders, how can you bridge that gap between theory and practice for your teams? There is no silver bullet to improve in negotiation, but there are some ways to be more efficient and effective that rely on using self-discovery and process.  

At Shapiro Negotiations Institute, one of our tools is to turn to a tried-and-true game of high-stakes and higher-rewards to perfectly illustrate the fundamentals of great negotiations. Yes, we train through poker. And it works. Here’s how.

Establishing Poker as a Proxy for the Negotiations Table

To make the most of the training, we begin these programs with an introduction to the game itself. We offer an optional Poker 101 session that is meant for any first-time player or individual looking to brush-up on the rules of the game and basic strategies. 

Next, we start the main event with a guided discussion around poker strategies. This session is taught by a former professional poker player who has sales and training experience. As a result, we begin with an interactive module using stories from his/her experience to highlight tips and tactics that we would like to arm all participants with prior to beginning a tournament. This is often a keynote on its own as it’s filled with gripping stories of what happens when there are millions of dollars at stake and people watching, which translates into practical poker and negotiation tips. In this case, it serves to get the most out of the upcoming simulation.

Turning Talk into Practice

To ensure lessons sink in quickly, we break into a tournament-style game of poker. For 45-90 minutes, the group regardless of size is broken up into smaller tables of 6-10 people to practice the lessons they have just heard and compete. The tables all use software that allows for full audio and video of each player at the table to maximize the quality of the experience and replicate a live poker feel. During this breakout, the professional player acts as a host to observe, comment, and critique as he or she goes from table to table. 

After the round is complete, the group reconvenes to talk about the game itself. Key takeaways are broken down all within the perspective of the game. By immediately bridging what they just experienced within the poker game to business negotiation the lessons are highly memorable and impactful.

Delivering on the Lesson

Perhaps the most popular advice that translates to negotiation was shared by Kenny Rogers in his famous song – “The Gambler”: Know when to hold, when to fold, when to walk away, and when to run. While it may sound simple, it makes the world of difference for poker performance to make the right decision on folding, betting, and going all in. The question becomes, what other advice can we take from poker that translates to sales and negotiation? 

While a significant amount of the feedback provided after the tournament is based on our customization process with the client and what occurred in the game, there are some core principles that often weave their way into the programs. Here are a few of the most common in our programs:  

Sunk costs can skew decision-making – In poker they call it “being pot-committed.” It means players who have put more money into the pot feel higher stakes and more pressure than what the pot is actually worth. Their decisions are driven by that ownership and potential loss rather than being objective about their chances to win the hand and what is at stake. In real negotiations the same occurs. The more work we put into a deal the more we are likely to see it subjectively and make bad decisions in order to avoid wasting time and effort. This bias, and decision-making in general, can be improved and in turn impact results quicker than you think.

Playing the people, not the cards – In poker, as in negotiation, players bluff. A player turns a bad hand into a win by playing his/her cards or misleading the other players. This often occurs because people naturally tend to focus first on their cards, then on the cards of the other party, finally on the other player(s). The same occurs in negotiation. For example, we often run a simulation as part of our standard negotiation program that has participants assisting in the mediation of a real high-stakes negotiation worth hundreds of millions, rather than working through the interests of the two parties inevitably people jump to the legal issues. If the parties go to court, the entire case will hinge on this information. However, prior to going to court, its all about playing the people.

Aggressive and patient gameplay wins – As for any predator, victory in poker is about timing. It is impossible to be in an advantageous position with every single hand. Instead, winners wait patiently for the right time to make a move. When it comes, they strike conviction. Likewise, in negotiations, timing is critical for when to probe, pressure, and persevere. Trying to move without conviction can be worse than failing to move at all.

Emotions exist. Use them –  A simple but crucial takeaway: humans have emotions. They are present in poker as in negotiations, and they are impossible to remove completely. Fear of loss is a powerful drive that can induce risk-seeking mindsets; understanding emotion is essential for how to frame and navigate evolving negotiations.

Use silence to your advantage –  Get comfortable with pauses, and use the time to think and plan. Human instinct pushes us to fill silence, but making the first move (or too many  moves) can overplay the hand we’re dealt. Use silence to think, focus, and wait patiently. How impactful is this? We run an entire section of our advanced negotiation course specifically on using silence!

Negotiation Skills are Improved Through Training and Experience

Poker offers a relevant and fun opportunity to practice negotiation. When properly run, a poker tournament could be a perfect option to both engage your sales team, but also improve their negotiation skills. It offers the perfect blend of self-discovery, along with basic and advanced negotiation tactics under real pressure. 

If you are a sales manager looking to improve the performance of your sales team, consider using poker in 2021 and beyond. 

Andres Lares is managing partner at Shapiro Negotiations Institute.


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