Adel Abdel-Latif: No more Mr. Nice GuyMiss out on that bonus? Amateur. Top negotiator and kickboxing champ Adel Abdel-Latif is here to whip you into shape
Adel Abdel-Latif is the best negotiator you’ve never met. The “Ghost Negotiator” is the mastermind behind emergency agreements, company acquisitions and bilateral talks. And the 44-year-old always gets what he wants. The same goes for his day-to-day life. He has an IQ of 150+, won the Mr. Switzerland title in 1996, became the youngest senior radiologist in history when he was 32 and two years ago became the oldest kickboxing world champion ever at the grand old age of 42.
We met him in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Zurich for a crash course in how to unlearn modesty.
THE RED BULLETIN: If this was a negotiation and not an interview, what would I already have done wrong?
ADEL ABDEL-LATIF: When you were in the taxi on your way to the hotel, I asked you to meet me half an hour later. You shouldn’t have put up with that. You should have demanded a new appointment there and then, saying how sorry you were, of course, but that you had a busy schedule.
But I wanted to be polite.
That’s very commendable. But getting you to wait might have been a tactical ruse on my part. I could have had you in a weaker, more submissive position before we’d even started negotiating.
How do you mean?
You showed me that you’re willing to tolerate inconvenience. Most people want to avoid conflict. They’re ready to make poor compromises, to accept disadvantages. It’s a mistake that costs them dear.
Are we all too modest?
Yes, because the more demands we make, the more we come away with.
Children are good at that. I have a 4-year-old daughter. She’s good at it. She asks for a trip to Disneyland, a pony and ice cream. And she ends up getting an ice cream that she wouldn’t have had if she hadn’t asked. She’s successful because she’s not modest and has no fear of confrontation.
You call yourself the Ghost Negotiator. What does that job title entail?
I develop negotiating strategies for my clients. I get negotiating teams together and practice every step, every gesture, every contribution they are going to make at their encounter with the opposing party. I provide them with detailed information about the other party and prepare them for how to react confidently to even the dirtiest underhand tactics. In doing so, I’m pursuing a single goal: to consistently, or very consistently, press home my client’s interests.
But you can meet halfway.
I have to clear up a misconception here: There’s no such thing as a win-win situation when it comes to hard-bitten negotiations. In actual fact, only one party wins. But there is a psychological win-win when both parties think they’ve come off well.
Ghost Negotiator, kickboxing champ
Adel Abdel-Latif arrives for our appointment in a top-of-the-range SUV, wearing an expensive suit, a valuable watch and silver skull-and-crossbones rings on the ring and middle fingers of his right hand. The significance behind the skull-and-crossbones motif is “very private,” he says. He won’t elaborate, and maybe that’s the point. It’s another element of mystery to a man who only benefits from cloaking himself in it.
Adel Abdel-Latif is an inviting conversationalist when he wants to be cooperative. He actively engages with everyone involved in this interview. He provides drinks for the team, takes an interest in people’s personal lives.
But it isn’t necessarily always like that. Before his kickboxing world title fight two years ago, he manipulated his opponent by planting a humiliating kiss on his forehead at the press conference. His opponent, known for being a hothead, went and fought with too much aggression and emotion. Abdel-Latif, by contrast, boxed calmly and in a calculated manner—and came off an easy winner.
You say that we all conduct 40 negotiations a day. How can I win more of these little power plays without having a skill like kickboxing to come to my assistance, like you do?
It’s merely a matter of practice makes perfect. Just make it a matter of course to ask for more than you’re being offered. Explain that you’ll take that shirt that costs $100 but you only want to pay $80 for it. Demand a free dinner in the hotel restaurant if your room hasn’t been cleaned. You’ll be amazed at how much comes your way just like that. And here’s another secret: knowing what you want and demanding it makes you really sexy.
But doesn’t it also make you a little bit … unpleasant?
Well, hopefully you’re not going to be aggressive about it. You can be charming and respectful to each other even when you’re negotiating hard.
It might be easy to stand firm at a hotel reception desk. But how do I act from a position of weakness if my negotiating partner has the upper hand, because he’s my boss or my landlord, say?
Hang on a second. This is a classic mind-f*ck, the way you, like most people, underestimate your own power and overestimate your opponent’s. Even the most successful managers and politicians think the same way.
But it’s not the case because we have more power than we think?
Anyone speaking to you wants something from you. Your money, your labor, your knowledge. That’s your trump card. And it’s often not your only one. Time might also be on your side, for example. Like when a position that you are fully qualified for urgently needs to be filled but you just want to check your market value.
Can you give us a negotiating tip that we can put to good use every day?
Never make a concession without demanding something in return there and then.
So I might say to my head of department, “I’ll take on this huge project but I want an extra week of vacation in return … ”
Very good. You’re learning already. But use the conditional. Say, “I could imagine taking on this huge project.” Don’t tie yourself down too quickly. That narrows your room to maneuver.
“I’ll think about taking on this tough project. Surely you can guarantee me an extra week of vacation if I do.”
That’s much better. But what if your boss just says no?
Ha! But I’ve got the upper hand. And I can’t back down. So I call his bluff and threaten to resign.
You’ve got it all wrong. You should never threaten a course of action that you’re not actually willing to go through with. You’re always better to go into negotiations with a whole bunch of potential bargaining chips. Propose a special bonus. Or a company car. Or that they pay for you to go to a class. You’re bound to be able to agree on something at the end of it.
How important is appearance to success?
There are industries and cultural backgrounds within which certain status symbols are important if you want to be taken seriously. If you want to break through such conventions, you have to be twice as good as everyone else. Of course you can also use understatement strategically to your advantage. A secret services negotiator friend of mine springs to mind. He’s under 5 foot, bald, wears suspenders and bad-fitting suits. He’s a really tough guy who turns the fact that people underestimate him at first glance to his advantage.
So is there actually no rule that really works in all cases?
The most important thing is that you know exactly how the other party ticks. Then you can adapt when it comes to the showdown and target his weaknesses. I have to praise the narcissist. I have to instill trust in the hysterical types. I have to confront the control freak with information he is unaware of.
Are dirty tricks also allowed?
Yes, as long as they’re legal. But it’s more important to be on the lookout for dirty tricks from the other party and to be able to react to them. Many of my clients get tailed, bugged or hacked.
What are your moral limits when it comes to negotiating?
I help people get their due. I don’t help them deceive others.
Let’s have another thought experiment. If this had been a negotiation and not an interview, how would we part company now?
Now would be a time to be modest again. Don’t smirk smugly if you’ve got what you want in the bag. Thank the other party for the amicable settlement and compliment them on a hard and knowledgeable discussion. And then ideally go and celebrate a successful conclusion together over dinner.