5 Dolphin Principles That Will Make You a Better Negotiator

Don’t avoid conflicts when the outcome is important

Hello fellow entrepreneurs!

My entire childhood I was fascinated by dolphins; my entire bedroom was full of dolphin stuff. I love their funny noises, the way they so elegantly swim and play with the waves, and their smooth, shiny and graceful appearance. For 15 years I sadly enough lost my fascination for dolphins, until I read the book titled The Strategy of the Dolphin: Scoring a win in a chaotic world by Dudley Lynch and Paul L. Kordis.

In their book, the authors describe why “dolphins” — people that use similar strategies as the sea animal — are such great business people. Especially their negotiating skills give them a great advantage to “sharks” and “carps” — the two other types of negotiators described in the book. Running into conflicts is inevitable when starting a business, so you’d better be an effective negotiator than trying to avoid conflicts.

Sharks (win-lose)

They follow a scarcity model – all there is needs to be taken: there must be winners and losers. They want to be the winner, regardless of the costs.

When in conflict with a shark: One bad move, and you’ll be eaten. Sharks will eat virtually anything, including their own kind.

Carps (lose-win)

They also follow a scarcity model, but they believe they cannot win. They will swim away quickly instead of dealing with the conflict.

When in conflict: carps will either give in, or get out. Carps tend to gather together until sharks arrive and eat them.

Dolphins (win-win)

They believe in potential scarcity and potential abundance. They have a much higher intelligence than sharks and carps, and have the ability to learn from their experience. Their behaviour is not predictable; they change their actions after having evaluated the situation. Usually they will go for a win-win outcome, but can deliberately choose for a lose-win strategy. Dolphins like to win, but they don’t need for you to lose unless you insist on it.

When in conflict: successfully adepts to any situation they encounter. They shouldn’t stay among the carps, have to be careful not to bleed (even when bitten), and use intelligent strategies to defeat the sharks.

After reading The strategy of the dolphin, which includes interesting visions about how “dolphin” thinking can be developed, I was wondering how much was informed by the actual strategies that real dolphins use. There is quite a few things studied and written about the cognitive and social behaviours of dolphins — humans are on a quest to indefinitely say if humans or dolphins are actually the most intelligent. I’m not going into that debate (I vote dolphin), but no matter what, everyone agrees that dolphins have a complex brain capacity and have shown to be very intelligent creatures.

In what follows, I’ve abstracted some of my learnings into five easy to interpret principles that will make you more “dolphin” like, or in this perspective a better negotiator and more likely to build your startup the way you believe is best.

1. Train your self-awareness and self-management

The very most important thing for intelligence - in the sense that we value it - is the ability to be self-aware. Here is an interesting NPR interview discussing self-awareness in dolphins. Self-awareness allows the development of intricate behaviours as a result of repeated tasks, sounds, objects, signs, etc. Dolphins have a very high capacity to learn, recognize, remember, and react appropriately.

Although humans all have the brain capacity to be self-aware, everyone “looses” this capacity at times. It is extremely powerful to know when and why your self-awareness is switched off, and how to control this better.

→ Being self-aware during a conflict – usually a stressful situation – is not always evident, yet it’s key to be intelligent.

2. Don’t tire yourself out trying to beat the waves

When you think of dolphins, you likely think of them swimming and playing with the waves. Dolphins are great in sensing the energy of the waves and determining how to catch a wave. Research shows they can do this for hours, which reduces heart rate, metabolic rate and transport cost by up to 70%.

→ When in a conflict, try to sense where the energy of the conversation is, and how to use this to your own benefit.

3. Find other dolphins to surround yourself with

“A dolphin alone is not really a dolphin,” says Lori Marino, a biopsychologist and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. “Being a dolphin means being embedded in a complex social network.”

Usually dolphins live in groups of 2-40, but researchers have found groups as large as several hundreds of members. Social behaviour is a major portion of dolphins' daily activities. Dolphins use playful behaviour and different kinds of sounds like echolocation and whistles to communicate with others. Dolphins display a degree of cohesiveness rarely seen in other animal groups; when an individual is in need, the entire group will come to help.

→ Only sharks want to have the sole victory of winning a combat. Find your companion dolphins that will work collaboratively to win the conflict.

4. Know which dolphins you should be friends with

Recently, researchers have found that groups of dolphins are not fixed; there is a lot of interchanging of members between different groups. For dolphins, alliances seem to be situational and extremely complicated. One hypothesis that their large brains may be explained by the need to keep track of all those relationships. Dolphins have an extremely well developed and defined paralimbic system for processing emotions. This is essential to the intimate social and emotional bonds that exist within dolphin communities.

→ Having a high EQ can be more beneficial than a high IQ. Obviously, having both is the best. This HBR article talks might help you to improve your EQ.

5. Don’t be afraid of sharks

Dolphins emit loud broadband packets of sound called burst pulses to chase away sharks. And if necessary they can even be deadly to a shark. As dolphins are never alone, or can call their allies for help, they circle quickly around a shark from different directions. The dolphins are much more agile swimmers, confusing the shark and rendering it unable to chase the dolphins. Ramming their snouts into the shark’s soft underbelly can knock it unconsciously or even crushes the shark’s skeleton.

→ Know your enemies weak spots, bundle up forces with your allies and attack at the perfect time.

Final exercise to get you thinking

To make this more applicable to your startup endeavour, think about which behaviour your co-founders/employees usually show. Is there a reason why they behave like that? Can you identify situations where negotiations are most difficult? Knowing you can achieve the best results when thinking like a dolphin AND being surrounded by other dolphins, you can build an ocean of dolphins.