I’m always searching for new negotiation best practices and tips when I’m speaking with Forrester clients, but it's not often I find one when I’m relaxing in bed with an old favourite, recently rediscovered book. But here’s one that I hope you’ll find amusing, and educational, from a book written over 80 years ago.

The current Mrs. Jones did some “tidying up” over Christmas — her euphemism for moving my stuff from its organized filing places in her office and dumping it as a jumbled pile on the floor of my office. In amongst a number of unwanted books and DVDs, now available at very reasonable prices on Amazon, I found my ancient copy of Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat by Ernest Bramah. It’s a wonderful book — set in China at some unspecified date in history — and written, so the preface claims, in that country’s classical convoluted style replete with analogies, adjectives, and apophthegms[i]. Read this passage about the ivory carver, Chan Chun, and his lowly assistant, Kin Weng, buying some new tusks from the merchant Pun Kwan — I hope you’ll love it as much as I do.

Pun Kwan and Chan Chun began slowly to approach, the former person endeavouring to create the illusion that he was hastening away, without in reality increasing his distance from the other, while the latter one was concerned in an attempt to present an attitude of unbending no-concern while actuated by a fixed determination not to allow Pun Kwan to pass beyond recall. Thus they reached Kin’s presence, where they paused, the sight of the outer door filling them both with apprehension.

“It were better to have remained through eternity in the remote desert of E-Ta, leaving these six majestic tusks to form an imperishable monument above our bones, rather than suffer the corroding shame of agreeing to accept the obscene inadequacy of taels which you hold out,” declared Pun Kwan with passionate sincerity. “Soften the rebellious wax within your ears, O obstinate Chan Chun!, and listen to the insistent cries of those who call me hence with offers of a sack of rubies for six such matchless towers of ivory.”

“If,” replied Chan Chun with equal stubbornness, “I should indeed, in a moment of acute derangement, assent to your rapacious demands of a mountain of pure silver for each of these decaying fangs, the humiliated ghosts of an unbroken line of carving ancestors would descend to earth to paralyse their degenerate son’s ignoble hand. Furthermore, the time for bargaining has passed, thou mercenary Pun Kwan! For pressing forward in the Ways behold a company of righteous merchants, each proferring a more attractive choice for less than half the price.”

Bottom Line: I don’t know that this verbosity would have much impact on your average rapacious technology sales rep, but I love the bit about pretending to walk away without actually doing so. One key to a successful negotiation is establishing a strong and credible walk-away threat. I hear many clients describing what they want from their suppliers, but without a clear idea of the "or what?" that they’ll do if the rep says “no.” Clarifying what you’ll do if you don’t get an acceptable offer is important, and then actually starting to act on that threat will be more effective than merely relying on the magic word "benchmark." As one of Bramah’s characters might say, “To encourage a camel along the path to righteousness, one weighty club may succeed where a hand count of elegant apophthegms have failed.”

A proverb or saying. (Don’t worry; Microsoft spellchecker doesn’t know what this means either.)