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UNM attorney shares gift of negotiation in book, class

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Master negotiator Michèle Huff wants more people to get more of what they want.

Most human interactions have elements of negotiation – from getting a raise or a new job to getting a teenager to clean his room. Huff says common sense and kindness can bridge most gaps between people.

“A lot of people view negotiation as an adversarial process, as something you do reluctantly. They see the person they’re negotiating with as an adversary. I think that’s because they are focused on the transaction and not the human element,” she says a recent book chat at Bookworks on Rio Grande NW. “I think if we pull back and become more holistic and spiritual about it, we can see it differently. If we can start to think of the other person in the negotiation as our partner, not as an adversary, that’s helpful.”

Huff, an attorney and a practicing Buddhist, says those she has helped – from individuals to Fortune 500 companies – have told her that her negotiating style is different from most.

“I kept getting this feedback that I was a different kind of negotiator. I had been negotiating for a lot of people individually and I started doing it as a consultant. I was getting a lot out of that,” she says, recalling that one client asked her if she had some kind of magic.

Huff had negotiated a contract for twice what that client normally received. “I have a spiritual feeling about negotiation. It’s the human connection. Everyone wants to be heard, to be listened to and to be understood. They want to know that you are willing to compromise – that you can give as well as take.”

Heart and head

She was inspired to write “The Transformative Negotiator: Changing the Way We Come to Agreement from the Inside Out” to reach more people. “I kept thinking what if I can help people do this on their own?” She will teach a five-week mindful negotiating class from the book’s principles beginning in October through the University of New Mexico Continuing Education.

Michele Huff, a lawyer at the University of New Mexico, talks about her book, “The Transformative Negotiator,” at Bookworks. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Michele Huff, a lawyer at the University of New Mexico, talks about her book, “The Transformative Negotiator,” at Bookworks. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Huff, a UNM lawyer for research, technology and intellectual property, says it took her seven years to distill the wisdom that she had been practicing since she graduated from the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University in the 1980s. But as she encourages her readers to do, she persevered.

Before she came to UNM in 2008, Huff had been in private practice in Santa Fe after working for many years for a tech firm in Silicon Valley. Huff, born and raised in New York City, with French as her first language, attended college in Colorado.

After her first visit to Taos when she was 17, she says she fell in love with New Mexico. She recently received a “Woman of Influence” award from a local business journal, in part for her volunteer work mentoring new law school graduates.

In a review, writer and friend Natalie Goldberg says Huff’s book is “a beautifully written meditation on the art of human interaction. Huff writes from the heart, not just the head.”

Starting with no

Huff says she constructs a negotiation model based on questions, such as who, what, when, where and why.

Who are you and where are you coming from? Knowing that about both yourself and your negotiation partner helps keeps the communication from escalating to anger, if conflict arises.

“Put yourself in the other person’s position. When you see criticism coming at you, consider where the person is coming from. It’s about that person’s history. Of course, your first reaction is to be defensive. That’s human. Be aware. But maybe in your second thought, you can be kind and generous. After all, your goal is to come up with a mutually satisfying agreement,” she says.

The most important question is why, because it takes the negotiation past no. “Why are you negotiating? If you are asking your boss for a raise, why do you want it? Do you feel undervalued? Do you need more money because you have an aging parent or you need to send your child to a private school? If you know why you are negotiating, you can expand your universe.”

She explains that if your boss says she doesn’t have money for a raise, maybe you can negotiate for something equally valuable. For example, if you know that telecommuting would ease your stress, then getting your boss to agree to that is equivalent to a raise. “In our culture, many see no is an ending point, but I see no as the beginning. It gives you the opportunity to ask why.”

In her book, Huff encourages the principles of patience, perseverance and humility in all negotiations: “When we ignore the rest of the universe and focus solely on our self-interest, we find ourselves caught in a web we didn’t even know we had woven,” she writes. “But when we negotiate with the entire cosmos sitting at the table, we can move toward agreement as smoothly and speedily as possible.”