Negotiation Blog

Masters of the "Mulligan" on the Golf Course and in Negotiations

By Leslie Mulligan

One of the preeminent “grand slam” golf tournaments celebrated globally, The Masters in the U.S.(Augusta, Georgia), began today, Thursday, April 9th. As a negotiation expert with a long career in sales and business development, I know how helpful golf can be to your professional career. Forbes distilled the 19 tips to “Closing a Deal on the Golf Course” and all of them ring true for me. But what many negotiators miss is that mastering the game is not enough; you must also master the "Mulligan", on and off the course.

A "mulligan" is a do over stroke in golf. My last name is also "Mulligan." As you may imagine, many people ask me if I play golf. I do play golf, enjoying the mental and physical challenge as well as the time spent with colleagues, on business and with friends. And I also leverage the "mulligan."

If you are not aware of the golfing term “mulligan”, it is a free stroke that you can claim, but only if your partner agrees. For example, if your ball happens to make its way into the sandtrap (never happens to you?), well, you get a do-over – a mulligan. It's sort of an unwritten rule of golf that found its way into the game when prominent golfer David Bernard Mulligan took a correction shot on the course with friends, and he and his partner later won by 1 point. Getting a mulligan can make a difference.

But offering a free stroke or mulligan, may be even more impactful – on and off the course. 

Let's back up and take a look at Forbes tip # 6 -- also a cornerstone for master negotiators – “don’t be too competitive. The emphasis in a business golf setting should be on building rapport and trust with your playing partners.” In collaborative negotiations, a win-win philosophy where value is expanded for all by addressing parties' interests, establishing a trusting relationship is imperative if you want your “playing partners” to reveal their essential interests. If they view you as trustworthy, they may let you know what their priorities are – and you can do the same – allowing the business deal to grow in value for both parties.

Even the PGA (Professional Golf Association) highlights the fact that golfing can help you in your business networking, enabling you to learn about your playing partners, on their Get Golf Ready website:  Networking is like socializing on the golf course (or anywhere)– “but with the purpose or intent of gaining information and insight about someone or something.”

Offering mulligans to your playing partner may significantly improve your business relationship (and their golf round). In social science, we know that doing a favor for someone triggers a debt of social obligation, where the recipient of the favor feels like they may “owe” the giver something. Even if it is a small favor, it can still work to your advantage. So why not ensure your playing partner can take a do-over now and again in their 18 holes. They will appreciate your offer, and it may pay off for you in a subsequent business deal.

Now, none of the professional golfers at The Masters will take mulligans, but for amateurs like us, it can be a powerful lever at the negotiation table! A few other tips in the Forbes article caught my eye as potentially very helpful - not just on the course, but at the negotiation table as well:

  • Be on your best behavior – golf is a very revealing sport, and if you play with potential business partners, rest assured that they will take their impressions of you on the course into the negotiating arena. If you are trustworthy, likeable and hopefully competent on the golf course, that will serve you well once you are sitting at the bargaining table with them.
     
  • Respect the etiquette of the game – on the golf course, your partners will take notice that you respect the game, and them as well, if you follow the rules and play with decorum. Don’t take your own mulligans, unless offered by your playing partner. In the negotiation process, you also want to earn respect. Don't make outrageous offers or claims, avoid tactical maneuvers (i.e., arbitrary deadlines, bluffing, good cop bad cop) designed to trip or trick the other side. Respecting the process and earnestness of the discussion will accelerate your ability to gain trust, allowing you to more easily learn the interests of your business associates.
     
  • Control your anger – emotions running high can undermine any negotiation, so best if you control yours while at the negotiation table, just like on the golf course. You want your partner across the table, and on the links, to see you as someone who is rational, capable, and working with the spirit of win-win.

In my experience, I know that do-overs in business do not happen often, even with the last name of Mulligan. So seize the moment if someone proposes one at the negotiation table, but more importantly, watch for opportunities to offer a mulligan to your negotiation partners. Favors offered early in a developing business relationship can definitely pay off down the road. And the golf course is an ideal way to tap that opportunity!

Negotiating Tip

When negotiating via email, establish rapport first: start with a telephone call or web conference. Even better, if possible, start with a face-to-face meeting.


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