Sir Francis Bacon's 'Of Negotiating': 6 Lessons

Updated: Apr 2

Negotiation is a discipline worth studying because it is an enterprise that progresses very little – it has a history of a lot of reflection, experimentation, and postulation, but very, very incremental progress. If there can be any doubt, you’ll see that what follows is 420 year old advice that a negotiator can take to the table next week in any city on earth.



(This blog post contains 3 sections - the original "Of Negotiating" essay written by Sir Francis Bacon, my full 'modernization' of the original essay, and 6 key takeaways from the writing.)



Bacon is one of my favorites from undergraduate days, and has kept a privileged spot on my shelf during professional life, his words being as applicable for a working professional as for a philosophy student.


This post runs the risk of impudence; in general, when a literary giant writes a tight piece of prose, it’s presumptuous to do re-writes. But the essays are full of Latin quotes, archaic allusions, and 400 year-old turns of phrase – all tasteful, but chewy for a modern reader. So, I’ve run the risk, and hedged my efforts by including the original so you can read the master himself. While you read, know that Bacon was: childless, a late-blooming writer, the protagonist of a real-life riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags drama, among the all-time best English writers, and among the all-time best philosophers.



'Of Negotiating'


Francis Bacon. (1561–1626). Essays, Civil and Moral. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

"It is generally better to deal by speech than by letter; and by the mediation of a third than by a man's self. Letters are good, when a man would draw an answer by letter back again; or when it may serve for a man's justification afterwards to produce his own letter; or where it may be danger to be interrupted, or heard by pieces. To deal in person is good, when a man's face breedeth regard, as commonly with inferiors; or in tender cases, where a man's eye, upon the countenance of him with whom he speaketh, may give him a direction how far to go; and generally, where a man will reserve to himself liberty, either to disavow or to expound. In choice of instruments, it is better to choose men of a plainer sort, that are like to do that, that is committed to them, and to report back again faithfully the success, than those that are cunning, to contrive, out of other men's business, somewhat to grace themselves, and will help the matter in report for satisfaction's sake. Use also such persons as affect the business, wherein they are employed; for that quickeneth much; and such, as are fit for the matter; as bold men for expostulation, fair-spoken men for persuasion, crafty for inquiry and observation, froward, and absurd men, for business that doth not well bear out itself. Use also such as have been lucky, and prevailed before, in things wherein you have employed them; for that breeds confidence, and they will strive to maintain their prescription. It is better to sound a person, with whom one deals afar off than to fall upon the point at first; except you mean to surprise him by some short question. It is better dealing with men in appetite, than with those that are where they would be. If a man deal with another upon conditions, the start or first performance is all; which a man cannot reasonably demand, except either the nature of the thing be such, which must go before; or else a man can persuade the other party, that he shall still need him in some other thing; or else that he be counted the honester man. All practice is to discover, or to work. Men discover themselves in trust, in passion, at unawares, and of necessity, when they would have somewhat done, and cannot find an apt pretext. If you would work any man, you must either know his nature and fashions, and so lead him; or his ends, and so persuade him or his weakness and disadvantages, and so awe him or those that have interest in him, and so govern him. In dealing with cunning persons, we must ever consider their ends, to interpret their speeches; and it is good to say little to them, and that which they least look for. In all negotiations of difficulty, a man may not look to sow and reap at once; but must prepare business, and so ripen it by degrees."



Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618


'Of Negotiating' - A Modern-Day Translation


Kevin Legg


In order of preference, it is generally better to have in-person meetings, then phone, then email; and it’s better to have a third party involved. Emails are good for three things: getting a reply in writing; keeping a record of dialogue (to be shown later), or if you want an entire, uninterrupted argument to be heard. It is ideal to meet in person, where you can see someone’s facial expressions; when dealing with in sensitive issues, this will give clues as to how far you can push. You can take a reading of the situation and be forceful or gentle based on what you see in their face. People will sometimes say more, or concede more to a young face, or a beautiful face.


When choosing an ambassador for your business, choose straight-laced people over charmers; they are better at taking directions, and reporting accurately (rather than spinning updates in their favor); a charmer will charm his boss too. Also, choose people for the specific tasks you need done. Bold people for strong disagreements; eloquent speakers for persuasion; clever people for gathering information; stubborn mules for issues you do not want resolved. Furthermore, choose people who seem to be “lucky.” Whatever it is that has made them succeed in similar tasks before will likely make them succeed again; if nothing else, they have confidence from their wins, and will try to maintain their record of good luck.


It is better to build the context for a negotiation and work slowly toward the heart of the matter – this will help you detect areas of disagreement. The exception is if you want to the element of surprise by cutting to the chase in your opening line.


It is better to deal with someone who needs or wants something than to deal with someone who is content where they are at.


Supposing you only have one shot, the way to get beyond first impressions is to get your target to ask for background, to persuade your target in some secondary matter, then move to your core negotiation, or to simply win his trust at a personal level.


Negotiating tactics can be thought of as either “discovery tactics” or “work tactics”. Discovery tactics include things your target can discover about himself during your dialogue. These include trust (in you), passion (about some topic), ignorance (about some topic), and need (of something you might provide). Work tactics include things that you ought to know about your target. If you know his tastes, you can indulge them, if you know his personal goals you can persuade him in alignment with those, if you know his weaknesses and disadvantages you can impress him, if you know his superiors you can govern him.


If you are on the other side, dealing with an artful person, consider what they are saying in light of their ultimate goals. Say very little to them, and when you do talk, give them the information that they are least interested in knowing.


In all difficult negotiations, you can’t expect to sow and reap at the same time; but must prepare business, and so ripen it by degrees.




In all difficult negotiations, you can’t expect to sow and reap at the same time; but must prepare business, and so ripen it by degrees.


6 Takeaways From 'Of Negotiating'


  1. In order of preference, it is generally better to have in-person meetings, then phone, then email; and it’s best to use a go-between.

  2. Straight-laced people are better ambassadors than charmers. They’re better at taking directions, and reporting accurately. Charmers constantly spin facts in their favor – even to their boss.

  3. Choose representatives for specific tasks: bold ones for tough fights, eloquent ones for persuasion, wily ones for intelligence, stubborn ones for trench warfare.

  4. Put real stock in “lucky” people. Whatever it is that has made them succeed in similar tasks before will likely make them succeed again.

  5. The key value of meeting in-person lies in the face – and this works both ways – your face, and theirs.

  6. Emails are good for three things: getting a reply in writing; keeping a record of dialogue (to be shown later), and having an entire, uninterrupted argument heard.