Life is a Liminal State: The Art of Negotiation

Quick – what springs to mind when you hear the word ‘negotiation’? Does it, as it does for me, conjure images of hard-boiled politicians battling for supremacy, a veritable zero-sum game where the winner takes all? Over the course of a three-day workshop, however, such preconceived notions of mine were deftly dispelled. This workshop was called “The Heart of Negotiation”, held in Tembusu College from 9th to 11th May 2016, and was headed by Dr Kelvin Pang and Dr Kuan Yee Han. But this isn’t an article about the workshop per se. Rather, it is about the insights I’ve gleaned from the three days.

As mentioned earlier, while negotiation brings to mind amorphous images of arguments and backstabbing, actual negotiation tends more towards co-operation and collaboration. The art of negotiation encapsulates what we all do on a regular basis – working in concert with the circumstances to make the most of whatever has been given to us. Negotiation is also forging a deal out of uncertain landscapes, where each party’s interests, doubts and motivations have to be carefully teased out. A daunting task as it is, but even more daunting when you realise few of us have a clear idea of what it is that we really want.

Throughout the course of the workshop, we dealt with scenarios involving haggling for a prized collector’s item, brokering real estate, and negotiating a deal to build a deepwater sea port. Negotiation was transformed from a lofty concept, usually involving six-party talks with North Korea, to one that was well and truly applicable to daily life. The heart and art of negotiation lay in the process, not the outcome, and it was in our best interests to ensure that everyone left the deal not just with the terms agreed upon, but with sincere smiles on their faces. While great uncertainty lay in this process, it also harboured great possibility and potential.

Yet, my biggest takeaway from the workshop was not strictly related to negotiation. Whilst eating dinner the night after the workshop, something dawned upon me. All of life is a liminal state, or a period of transition. We’re always looking towards the future, or waxing lyrical about an often re-imagined past, rejecting the present because we find the current moment too unpredictable, too uncertain. When we live in the present, we’re constantly on the frontier of our own knowledge and experience. This can feel raw and uncertain, almost as if you’re making things up as you go along. Yet, negotiation has taught me that while this primordial state can be nerve-wracking, it’s also the most fertile ground for sowing seeds for a better future, or even reconciling the misdeeds of the not-too-distant past.

As Lenny Kravitz sang, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” You could apply this lyric to the negotiation process as well as life itself. This, to me, was the largest revelation I had gained in the workshop. Now, I am ready to take life on, try my utmost to negotiate a great outcome, and have fun in the process.

Photos by Dr. Kelvin Pang

About the Author

Erica enjoys animated films, comedies and podcasts about humanism. In her spare time, she can be found listening to Zayn Malik’s music.