Negotiation lessons from the penalty shootout

As a mediator who regularly encounters deadlock, I am accutely aware of the value of the ‘High Noon’ moments for negotiators stuck in impasse.  Normally it’s a critical moment where the parties come face-to-face with the harsh realities of deadlock. In this moment they are faced with frustrated business or economic goals; a sense of not being listened to and a tough re-appraisal of future options.  It’s either do a deal or exit for more pain and frustration.

The current football World Cup struck me as an interesting parallel, of skilful teams facing their moment of reality; glory or despair.  What symbolises this moment more acutely than the penalty shoot-out, of which we have already seen a few?

What brought this to mind was reading an article in The Psychologist magazine by Tim Callen [June 2018] on the evidence to support what differentiates winners in penalty shootouts, and particularly reflecting on the England team’s dire performance in this arena to date.  They have lost 7 out of 8 and hold an average score below the norm. Research has ruled out obvious variables like fatigue, style of kick, player position– pointing rather to psychology and stress coping mechanisms.

Callen identifies 5 variables that make a difference.  What was interesting was how they transfer to leadership of tough negotiations; who is more effective in articulating their point and influencing others?

Take your time

A feature of stressful situations is people lose their ability to sustain fluid skills. Instead they ‘choke’ on what are normally automatic and easy skills akin to a footballer kicking a ball from 12 yards into a wide goal.  Taking time to find your normal, ‘in the flow’ reaction can avoid the impact of initial anxiety.  The research shows that England have one of the shortest ‘whistle to kick’ times, demonstrating poor self-regulation.  Similarly, for negotiators, ‘when the going gets tough’ is not the time for impulsive behaviours. Rather, this should trigger a ‘step back’, giving you the opportunity to gain real perspective on the changing landscape of the negotiation.


As with ‘take your time’, learning how breathing techniques can self-regulate anxiety, is one of the most powerful tools for regaining control.  At the most sophisticated level, ‘biofeedback’ instruments help with making this effective.  But, for negotiators, they could do worse than just remembering the basics of counting from one to ten, and taking several deep breaths from the diaphragm before they react instinctively through ‘fight or flight’ physiology.

Pick a Spot (Take Control)

Focusing on what and where really matters and taking time for the brain to process this, has proved to get results in sport. In penalty shootouts that means looking at the empty spaces in the goal rather than at the goalkeeper!  The more anxious penalty takers tend to focus on the goalkeeper. ‘Quiet-Eye’ training, just like deep breathing, helps pull together the skills needed to produce better results. Indeed one can almost see this physically in action watching the body language of penalty takers in Rugby Union like Johnny Wilkinson or Owen Farrell.  In negotiations, this is keeping one’s eye on the big picture rather than on the irritations of immediate language or behaviours of opposing negotiators.  That’s what good preparation and working on concepts like BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) help with; maintaining focus on what counts and how best to score.

Forget the Past (Priming)

The England team now have a well-known story with penalties that resurfaces in every competition, and it is not a helpful one.  Callen suggests it would be beneficial to reinforce other words and stories – ‘goal’ and ‘win’ for example rather than ‘oh sh*t, penalties again’! This helps anchor players in a fresh and more positive reality. In negotiations, keeping the tone positive, optimistic and forward-thinking ensures the process and relationships are suitable for progress and building confidence.


Research into body language during penalty shootouts demonstrates a correlation between success and the degree that teams physically celebrate a score.  ‘Emotional contagion’ affects confidence and determination, perhaps also at the same time diminishing the pride and confidence of the opposing team.  In negotiation, what appears to work is equally staying confident, patient and focused, but also keeping a positive relationship with the other party.  Negotiators can ‘celebrate’ by taking time to describe out loud or on a flip chart just how much progress has been achieved and how much give and take both sides have made in their desire to get a good outcome.

Sport offers many parallels for tough and competitive negotiations. But, a core insight to hold on to is that ultimately many complex business or political negotiations are not about ‘winning’ but about changing the game so that the two ‘sides’ come out with a ‘winning deal’ rather than a ‘winning score’ – it’s getting to a trophy that everyone should have their hands around.  Everyone in each negotiating team has to play to the best of their ability to achieve great outcomes.

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One Response to Negotiation lessons from the penalty shootout

  1. Mike Lampert 05/07/2018 at 14:05 #

    The FT today has a different analysis

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