Jim Murray has advised such disparate groups as military commanders and accountants on the art of negotiation - and, while their workplace issues are obviously different, his counsel is consistent: remain cool under fire.
"Know your hot buttons. When you know what your hot buttons are, you have just discovered your pause button," says Mr. Murray, who recently designed a three-day course on "the optimal negotiator" for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario.
While accountants are not generally regarded as hotheads, Mr. Murray says everyone has vulnerabilities and "soft spots" which - when pushed - trigger stress, anger and frustration.
It is far easier to muster a controlled, rational response if one knows in advance of a crucial negotiation what - or who - is most likely to set him or her off, Mr. Murray advises his clients.
It sounds basic, but more people lose negotiations by losing their cool than by any other strategic blunder, says Mr. Murray, chief executive officer of optimal solutions international, a consulting firm based in Maxwell, Ont.
"When you are going ballistic and losing it, you are defeating yourself," Mr. Murray says.
Although the stereotypical image of a negotiation is two parties going at it hammer and tong over a boardroom table, Mr. Murray advocates a more constructive approach.
"You can't win an argument by arguing with people ... Goals are achieved by influence, not force."
The group brought Mr. Murray in because, as its members climb the corporate ranks, they need to learn "the softer skills" required of leaders, says Robert Gagnon, a chartered accountant and assistant director of professional development at the institute.
"Negotiation is a daily experience and ... when you look at it in that perspective, you realize what an essential skill it is," Mr. Gagnon says.
For the accountants, the objective is to learn to read people as well as they read numbers - "negotiation is as much intuition as it is intellect," Mr. Gagnon says.
Mr. Murray, author of The Game of Life: How to Play, How to Win, says that "information is the ultimate source of power in a negotiation" - and the best way to gain that information is to listen, ask insightful questions and keep the lines of communication open.
Assuming the goal is not to totally crush the other party - although this is sometimes the case - negotiation requires creativity, tact, persistence and patience, he says.
Knowing when not to spout off during a lull in the negotiation, takes discipline, he says. "We are all socially predisposed after four to seven seconds [of silence] to feel a certain kind of angst. But if you can wait a couple of seconds - I call that the green banana principle - time changes everything."
The outcome of a negotiation where there is give-and-take is more lasting than a winner-take-all situation, which leaves the loser chafing to eventually "even the score."
The best negotiators generally allow the other side some wins, Mr. Murray says.
Of course, not all negotiations are entered in good faith.
When this is the case, it is prudent to be supremely well prepared, to know one's enemy - and not be goaded into an irrational or emotional response.
The key to a successful negotiation is recognizing - and dealing with - the tactics of the other party.
This is not easy when confronted with "difficult people ... who are somewhat immune to the normal tactics of persuasion," Mr. Murray concedes.
"The temptation, if you treat me aggressively is to treat you aggressively ... Well, eventually that just spirals downward. It's a cycle of destruction which will lead to remorse, revenge and so on," he says.
And once a set of negotiations goes off the rails, it is very difficult to get back on track.
"At some point, if you have gone too far, no amount of skill, no amount of effort or creativity will ever enable you to right the balance," he says.