When I was 19 I was lucky enough to join my mum on a physiotherapy course/skiing holiday in Verbier, Switzerland.
I tagged along for the snowboarding, après ski and copious amounts of hot fondue. Verbier is one of those incredibly impressive ski resorts packed with exclusive restaurants and bars, an array of skiing terrain for all abilities and is known as haven for famous celebrities and the super wealthy. Richard Branson even owns a chalet there.
It was a trip I will always remember for a number of reasons because it was the last one I ever took with together with my mum before she sadly passed away due to a malignant and aggressive form of cancer. It was also the closest I have ever come to death myself, after one wrong turn I found myself slip and fall flat on my back and in an instant begin hurtling an ever-increasing pace down a steep mountain slope towards the edge of an icy cliff with only blue skies and a 200-foot vertical drop ahead of me.
As I reached out and tried frantically to stop myself the friction from the rough compacted ice and the speed I was traveling burnt holes in my gloves.
This is when I knew I was in real trouble.
In a single moment I made a decision that would save my life. I leaned forwards, stretching out both arms and unclipped my snowboard releasing my legs. No sooner than I had unclipped my board did I launch myself at the nearest rock.
It all happened in an instant, my board sailed off into the blue abyss below and I span around as my legs went off the side of the cliff.
I clung on with the full weight of my chest on this big rock and looked down below.
What I saw changed my whole life.
Below I watched my snowboard still falling through the air, one second, two second, as time stood still as I watched in awe as my board smashed into the rocks below and then kept on going through the powder.
There was no way I could have survived a fall like that, it was at least 200 feet.
As clung on the rock and contemplated what to do, I a sensation of calm came over me. I knew that this was it, any decision I made going forwards would either lead to my very quick death or my survival. When you get this close to the edge of life, you get great clarity in mind. It’s the clearest and most focused I have ever been. There was no margin for error just black and white, life or death.
I said out loud to myself, ‘Tim, do not mess this up’. I was giving myself the pep talk of my life.
After a few moments I shifted my weight and centralised my body on the rock, I pulled myself up slowly. Adrenaline was coursing through my body, I felt strong but like any wrong decision would mean life could be taken away from me at any second. I was acutely aware of the possibility of this becoming a reality.
The only options I had as I could see it was to either wait on the rock, hoping that I didn’t get tiered, cold or slip off the edge whilst I waited in hope that someone somewhere would find me. This was before the days of smart phones and GPS.
No one knew where I was for the day, the rest of the crew were in lectures at this stage so I anticipated that it would be at least a few hours, if not nightfall before my disappearance was apparent.
The other option I had was to try and make it over to the side of the cliff where there was a huge pile of boulders cascading down the slide of the mountain like a land slide.
I made the decision that this was the way forward, sitting on the rock left me in too much danger, at least if I could make it across the mouth of the cliff and over the pile of rocks I could decrease the risk of immense danger.
As I stood up and began to tread carefully I knew the next few minutes were critical. Strangely enough, coming this close to death and not going over the edge I was elated in my decision to take off the snowboard and at the same time my mind was crystal clear in what I needed to do with the mission at hand.
All my energy was consumed in establishing each step with safety before I put my full weight down. Each step took me closer to my next goal, get to the other side. With every step I made sure to balance myself correctly, measuring the pressure and weight distribution so that I could be sure I wasn’t going to topple over.
After a number of minutes, maybe ten, I made the final few steps off the mouth of the cliff. Inside I don’t remember celebrating but I do remember a deep sense of calmness and understanding at how dyer the situation was. The stakes were at the highest that I had ever encountered. I had not experienced life in this form before. Every decision needed to be cross referenced, checked and acted upon.
Due to the nature of the mountain I was well aware how quickly conditions could change in an instant. Now I was out of immediate danger I still had to deal with the thought of spending the night on the mountain in below zero temperatures, with no food, shelter or warmth. This is where mindset was key to keeping me focused on the goal at hand.
I made the decision again that unless there looked to be no alternative option I should try to get off the mountain whilst I still had energy and it was still light with good sunny conditions.
As I explored the cliff side I noticed that the rocks and boulders descended into a big black cave, large enough for me to jump down into.
My biggest concern was now making sure that whatever I did I could still get back to this point. Entering this dark cave like rock formation I wasn’t sure how stable it was not to mention what was lying ahead of me or if the whole structure would collapse at any moment trapping me inside or worse.
I determined that I should explore anyway and that it was worth the risk if it took me down the cliff. The only way off the mountain was the scale the cliff myself and it looked to be as good a way as any. This was where I stepped into the unknown and trusted my gut instinct.
With each stage of the decent I made sure that I could get back up. Literally testing out the route as I went, going one or two steps down then four steps back up, rehearsing the route.
At some more challenging sections it required me to get on my hands and knees and crawl under and through gaps to progress forward to where I could see.
Through all of this I felt clear headed and positive about the possibilities of where the cliff side might lead.
This growth mindset kept me scanning the landscape for opportunities. Mentally I was weighing up every eventuality in my head, options seemed to appear out of nowhere and suddenly as if by magic I would find a way up and over an obstacle, or around that didn’t seem possible previously. To make progress I needed to get creative.
After three hours of decent inside the cave, I finally saw it. A bright white shining hole in the darkness. It was snow. It was the outside world. I had reached the base of the cliff.
As I prayed that I could fit through the gap in the wall and I crawled out into almost blinding sunlight I realised I had done it. I made my way round, trudging through deep untouched power. I was up to my thighs in snow.
I walked around the base of the landslide of rocks and around to look back upon the scale of the cliff I had just climbed down and had nearly taken my life. I realised it was much bigger than I had orgianlly thought.
There was absolutely no way I would have made the fall, it led directly on to rocks and then snow. It must have been a 400-foot drop with no second chances.
I didn’t pause for long to contemplate I was keen to keep going and reach civilisation again, but that image and experience has stayed with me forever. As I followed the tracks my snowboard had made in the untouched snow and found it further down the mountain with a few large cracks to show for the tale.
This experience showed me that in the most intense and hostile situations it is possible to get increased clarity combined with calmness that leads to outstanding results.
I have learned to apply the lessons from this experience to the business and in particular negotiations because there are many parallels that can be drawn.
For instance, each negotiation is like stepping into the unknown at first, but as you work out who you are dealing with, their wants, needs, and desires you can start to recognise patterns, and ways to become creative to overcome the challenges together. This is similar to my experience on the mountain, I had never encountered such an experience, yet it was happening and in order to survive I needed to understand the dynamics at play.
Seize the opportunity
It was time bound, staying on the mountain would almost certainly led to death. Many negotiations are time bound and delaying them means that the opportunity itself disappears or becomes unfavourable.
Prioritise and then reprioritise
I had to make decisions based on new information that I discovered as I went, in negotiations, new or important information can appear at any stage. In order to make the best use of it I was required to have a framework to understand how this new information would be prioritised against my goals.
This is the same in negotiations, when new options present themselves they must be weighed against the original goal. By descending further into the cave, I was taking myself further off the grid, I was going into the unknown and limiting the chance of someone spotting me who could help. I decided that based on spending the night on the cliff this was a risk worth taking.
Manage your emotions
For me to have success it was imperative I remained calm. In negotiations when emotions get flared or stress and anxiety or even anger present themselves it can derail the whole negotiation process and mean that opportunities for value creation get missed.
A big part of getting down the mountain safely was because I was on the lookout for areas of advantage. I was focused on finding a route forward despite the unknown terrain and obvious obstacles and setbacks.
Negotiations can often seem like the are littered with hurdles and blockages. To overcome these it’s important to know what is most important to us at a given time and recalibrate as challenges are solved.
At first my goal was to get to safety and securely away from the edge of the cliff. Following this I decided that getting down the cliff was of increased importance and set about making this happen.
In negotiations, tackle each issue, break it down into its components and move forward. Don’t focus on the negative.
Believe it is possible
if I had given in to the thought that getting off the mountain was an impossibility then I may well not have had the courage or strength to search out new options or made it across the face of the cliff. Being mentally strong in the face of negotiation challenges and believing that there is a way forward, you just need to find it helps you navigate.
It also helps you create value. Believing in the possibility means you will work harder than anyone else to find the areas of connection and the points of mutual understanding. Based on this a platform of exchange and trust is built, confidence is increased and through this is means that obstacles that would have once been a blockage are worked on and overcome.
Know who you are
In negotiations its important that you trust yourself to make decisions that reflect the life you want to live, or to put it another way, that you can live with. Not putting something on the table or taking it off the table too early because of emotional distress or discomfort is a rooky mistake. You need to back yourself to make the right decision at the right time whilst knowing that if you learn that it was mistake that you can make your way back to the starting point and try another route. Negotiations aren’t always a straight line, we may need to try multiple routes to succeed and trusting that you have the ability to distinguish when something is making progress that is constitutive or damaging and being able to tell the difference and act on it.
If you want to find out more about my method of successful negotiation and my take on improving a number of negotiation situations like buying a house, getting a job offer, then pick up a copy of my book, The Art of Negotiation.
My mission is to help raise awareness about negotiation skills, to improve confidence in everyday negotiations and increase the number of successful opportunities for negotiation that led to amazing outcomes.
My mantra is ‘there’s a negotiator in everyone’ so go out there and see what you can achieve.