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Don’t Shirk the Fundamentals

John wooden

There is one thing that all experts (in every single interview I’ve done) preach repetitively and without loss of enthusiasm. And that one thing is to FOCUS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS.

They consistently preach two things as the fundamental building blocks to success in negotiations:

1. Ask good questions
2. Actively listen

Strangely, many of us cast off this advice as too basic. My belief is that they could have said anything else as fundamentals, and many would likely STILL cast off the advice as too basic.


We are arrogant in our acquisition of knowledge. And many of us feel like we’ve already “been there, learned that”. “Teach me something new. Keep me entertained.” are likely the thoughts that run through our heads when presented with seemingly basic information. But have we learned the fundamentals? Do we actually know how to ask good questions? Do we really know how to listen?

I’ve found that it’s within the fundamentals that truth is discovered. And, like all disciplines, the implementation and mastery of the fundamentals prove to be the hardest things to develop, retain, and maintain. Likely because we think of them as too simple.

Ask any basketball fan who the greatest NCAA coach in history was and they’ll immediately say John Wooden. No other coach even comes close to the records that he set. The Wizard of Westwood won 10 championships over 12 years, including a stretch of 7 in a row. But was was his secret? Most people think they know the answer and will immediately say, “He drilled the basics, dribbling, passing, you know, that stuff.” But those people are only half right. To get to the true essence of what Wooden was about, you need to understand something about how deeply he believed in fundamentals. For Wooden, the fundamentals literally started with shoes and socks. Read this exchange that he had with one of his players:

Coach then took a black athletic sock and started to put it on Robert’s foot, asking the boy to complete the task.

Wooden: “Now pull it up in the back, pull it up real good, real strong. Now run your hand around the little toe area … make sure there are no wrinkles and then pull it back up. Check the heel area. We don’t want any sign of a wrinkle about it … The wrinkle will be sure you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time, and if you’re good enough, your loss of playing time might get the coach fired.”

To audience laughter, Wooden pulled out an athletic shoe.

“Now put it in wide, now pull it up,” he told Robert. “Now don’t grab these lines up here, go down, eyelet by eyelet … each one, that’s it. Now pull it in there … Tie it like this…”

The coach teased Robert gently as he explained why this was so important.

“There’s always a danger of becoming untied when you are playing,” he said. “If they become untied, I may have to take you out of the game — practice, I may have to take you out. Miss practice, you’re going to miss playing time and not only that, it will irritate me a little too.”

The depth of dedication Wooden had wasn’t just in dribbling and passing. It was in the foundation of putting on shoes and socks. You think you know how to put on your shoes and socks, but do you really? Wooden believed that to perform at the highest level in college basketball, you must place as much dedication, discipline and focus to putting on shoes and socks as you would to dribbling a ball. That’s how deeply he believed in fundamentals.

Every single negotiation expert I’ve spoken to, without fail, has said that there are two things each of us must master to become great negotiators:

1. Ask good questions
2. Actively listen

So if we know, from every single negotiation expert, that these two things are the fundamental building blocks of all negotiation that everything else is built on, why do we cast them aside as too basic?

Let’s assume that asking good questions and actively listening are things that we actually want to get better at, but for some reason we have a mental block and we just don’t get the depth of what’s being said here. How do we strip away our biases on something that we view as too basic?

Shoshin (or Beginner’s Mind) is a Zen Buddhist term that refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. There’s a beauty in the approach that a true beginner takes to learning a skill that they want to know. There’s no arrogance or bias. It’s a pure form of discovery and delight every time they learn something new.

To truly begin to master the fundamentals we need to cultivate shoshin. And the only way to do that is to let go of our egos and be willing to get hurt. I know it sounds extreme, but you need to be willing to have everything you know be challenged. And likewise you need to willingly put yourself into situations where your ego will get bruised and battered and broken. To humble yourself enough to approach the basics with the same vigor as something new is something I am still learning, and will likely always be learning. It’s a constant road of self-discovery and each time I learn something truly new in negotiation, I’m reminded of how much that new thing relies on the two fundamentals and how that new thing cannot exist without the mastery of the two fundamentals:

1. Ask good questions
2. Actively listen

The challenge becomes, how do we keep this top of mind? How can we truly crystallize this knowledge in our minds?

To crystallize this right now, I want you to take out a sheet of paper and write down the following:

“I approach each lesson on negotiation with a beginner’s mind.”

Now I want you to use this as a mantra and say this daily for the next 30 days every morning. You may just now be catching yourself saying, “Nope. Not doing that, that’s silly.”

Ask yourself why you’re saying that.

The challenge now becomes how we can constantly challenge ourselves to:

1. Ask good questions and,
2. Actively listen


Will you cast this aside as too simple? Or, will you cultivate shoshin?