Negotiating Counterintuitively

I have written three books on negotiating. These were published in 1989, 1997, 2002 and again (reprinted) in 2015. I have been blogging, off and on, for over a decade on a wide array of topics that capture my interest in the moment. Yet I have never posted an essay on negotiating, perhaps the one area of research and practice for which I am best known. Until now.

The number one reason why others choose not to agree with you at the bargaining table is not your price, your product, your delivery or some other unique selling proposition or advantage. Rather, it’s their fear of the unknown and the future negative consequences of a bad deal.

Our brains are built primarily to pay attention to three things when we are either asked or offered something: what’s different, what’s new or what’s dangerous? This internal, easily excitable “radar” is a function of the amygdala, which sits at the epicentre of the brain, below the thalmus, and largely controls the brain. It doesn’t make decisions but it greatly influences them. External sensations (data) that are not perceived as new, different or threatening invariably receive a pre-prepared (i.e., habitual) response.

Resistance flows mainly from a lack of trust, misunderstanding, insecurity, dislike or uncertainty. This results in internal dissonance and that serves to heighten our fears. Dissonance is emotionally painful and thus gets in the way of the brain’s primary mission – to make us happy, not confuse us. So, these fears lead us to deny evidence that runs counter to our core beliefs. This is what we call rationalization. Some prefer to call it confirmation bias. Every negotiator seeks to rationalize the deal, even those that, by any objective standard, they lost. Where there is dissonance, there is pushback.

When your alter-negotiator sees or hears tactics previously experienced, you get pre-programmed, knee-jerk objections and reservations to your proposals. Alternatively, when you can respond with something they’ve never heard before in a non-threatening way, you invariably get new information and, sometimes, even new enquiries. In other words, they are asking you, not rejecting you. And, in a negotiation, information is the ultimate source of your power. It’s never what you know that makes a difference but what you don’t know (but think you do).

While the antidote to fear is trust, there are other ways to “trick” the brain. The optimal negotiator doesn’t fight human nature, he or she uses it to advantage. This requires an understanding of what the Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman calls “the law of least effort” – ideas that come easily to mind are intuitively felt to be right. So smart negotiating tactics by-pass the cerebral cortex, the command centre that gives weight to our suspicions, biases and experiences. They go directly to the heart of where our decisions are actually made.

In seeking to sell your ideas (or yourself) and convince others of the rightness or merits of your cause, realize that humans more quickly embrace simplicity over complexity, certainty over ambiguity, less over more, easy over hard, value over price and likable over annoying.

Negotiating counterintuitively means being creatively different in the deployment of unexpected tactics that trigger the amygdala’s emotional cravings. When for example, your prospect says she’s happy with her current supplier, instead of pushing your qualifications or superior service benefits, ask her this question: “What do you like most about your relationship with xyz?” You’re maybe wondering why you should be reminding her why she prefers the existing relationship? Because it’s safe, removes threat and positions you as an ally, not an adversary.

After you hear all the positives about her current supplier, you’ll start hearing a few negatives. Because our biases always kick in when given the time to do so – without being thwarted by your interruptions, arguments or overt salesmanship. Our negativity bias is just waiting to have a few words on the subject of relationships. Because no relationship is perfect. So your opportunity comes from asking good unexpected, non-threatening questions and being patient, not pushy. Think of it as planting seeds in fertile soil and waiting for them to germinate.

When your buyer says she’s very happy “as is,” drop the hard sell then respond sincerely with this: “Great to hear. If you’re getting exactly the price and level of service you want and need, you shouldn’t change. I just wanted a few minutes to learn about your business to see if we might be a fit. And I’d freely give you a competitive quote that would help you keep your current supplier honest.” (Note also the use of some magical words like “freely” and “help.”)

In truth, we all fear losing something that might be better than what we already have. In my experience, having witnessed it hundreds of times, people have a reluctance to walk away from potentially bad deals fearing that, minimally, their investment of time and effort will be lost. Like most things, it’s a matter of practice. Walk away and see what happens. This was my first lesson as a young budding negotiator at the age of 16 – as tough as it was, my teacher was right … the better deal came back within minutes.

When you tell others the gap is just too large or that you’re not going to chase them, this again activates “the almonds” (which is what the amygdalae look like) that drives the emotional part of the brain. It’s called the scarcity bias – we generally want what we can’t have. And you’re also being honest when you say “I really don’t know if it makes sense for our companies to work together ….” Honesty too calms resistance.

We have, by count, at least 35 innate, hard-wired biases that create doubt, fear and resistance. Knowing what they are and how they affect your thinking is the avenue to developing magical, counterintuitive phrases and responses that can overcome the objections or reservations standing in the way of a deal otherwise waiting to be made.

In my negotiating classrooms, I refer to this as the art of phrasing to induce the desired perceptions. It’s just learning how to speak to the real decision-maker inside your adversary’s brain such that it will pay attention, rather than instantaneously reject your argument without due consideration. If your position isn’t even going to be weighed, then you’re certainly not going to get what you want.