Learning from pilots how to better negotiate

learning from pilots how to win a negotiation

Flying always fascinated me and, while I did not have the chance to become an airline pilot, I recently started having flying lessons as a hobby. I also started learning much more about what it means to be a pilot – and I realized that, as a business negotiator, I could learn a lot from pilots and step-change the chances of winning my deals. 


Let me start with one (negative) example: On Feb 21, 2008, Santa Barbara Airlines’ Flight 518 taking off from Merida airport in Venezuela and heading to Caracas crashed into a nearby mountain shortly after departure, killing all its 46 people onboard. It was the deadliest accident involving an ATR-42 plane up to that moment.

The Captain and the First Officer were both very experienced pilots with thousands of flight hours, many on the same route. Yet, they crashed the plane! The investigation discovered that the pilots, arriving late to the aircraft, rushed the take-off procedures, which caused the Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHRS) not to initiate. As a result, they could not maintain the correct direction of the plane while ascending through the clouds and crashed into a nearby mountain. The AHRS system needs 180 seconds to properly boot, but the pilots, knowingly, chose to speed up their take-off, rather than wait the last 28 seconds needed for it to properly function! 28 seconds which sentenced everyone to death! Here are some more details for the aficionados: https://rb.gy/pq66lr

Why am I scaring you with this story? Because it illustrates perfectly the importance of perfect preparation before a take-off, similar to the perfect preparation needed before any negotiation. The similarities between pilots and negotiators do not end here. I’m listing below some key areas that pilots excel in, and that we, business negotiators, should also excel in if we want to be successful and not “crash” our deals:

1.  Overall exceptional preparation, following very clear Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) Everything is highly procedural, and there are clear checklists for all stages of a flight. For example, for a Boeing 737-800 (one of the most well-known and used aircraft,), there are 14 checklists that the pilots must go through every time they fly. 

2.    Clear roles and responsibilities between pilots. One pilot is Pilot Flying (PF) (having control of the plane) and the other is Pilot Monitoring (PM) (just like the name says it – monitoring the indicators and informing the PF about any issues that appear or simply confirming that the steps of the procedures are correctly taken by the PF).

3.   They communicate exceptionally well – with utmost clarity – each message is repeated and acknowledged by the recipient, so there are no misunderstandings. For example, if the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tells PF: “Cessna 2345, climb to Flight Level 100”, then the PF must respond “This is Cessna 2345, climbing to Flight Level 100”. 

4.   Anticipation – the pilots anticipate what is going to happen 30 miles ahead of them. Also, they anticipate the reaction of the plane when they maneuver it because of its huge inertia. 

5.   They never gamble/never take chances – if there are 99% chances for a safe landing, the pilots ALWAYS reroute the plane to one of the alternative airports in the area, which has a 100% chance of safe landing.

6.    They do not look for excuses – they know the life of everyone on board is in their hands and they have the responsibility to bring all “souls” safely on the ground. Finding excuses is not “on their menu”. If something goes wrong outside their control (an external factor), they will always fight like crazy to safely land the plane. 

7.    They are always extremely well trained and tested – all pilots, irrespective of experience and level, go through very tough exams every 6 months at the flight simulator, so they are always ready when “bad luck strikes”. Additionally, they also learn about the latest developments in aviation and about the plane they are qualified to fly.

While in most situations of normal business negotiations, nobody’s life depends on us, I still strongly believe we have some important learnings from the way the pilots work, learnings which will make us much more effective, guaranteed:

1.  Prepare THOROUGHLY no matter how simple the negotiation looks! “Shooting from the hip” must never happen, nor should we leave the negotiation to “fate” or “luck”.

2.   When negotiating as a team, the team leader must assign clear roles and responsibilities for the members – and everyone must stick to his/her role!

3.  We must improve our communication skills, no matter how good we feel we are (we are NEVER too good, by the way!!). Always clarify that our message was properly understood by the other party and always check that your understanding of the other party’s message is as intended by the “emitter”.

4. Exercise and use anticipation – both during the preparation phase, but also as the negotiation unfolds. Imagine you are playing chess and you must foresee several consecutive moves of your adversary, including his/her reaction to your actions.

5. Take responsibility for the outcome of the negotiation (“No excuse ownership”!!!) and for your development (always look for ways how you can improve)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.