Negotiation & Neuroscience: What to Take to Your Next Business Meeting

There’s a stalemate. You’re trying to negotiate a better deal for your company but are being stonewalled by a major client, who you believe is ripping your company off. You can’t walk away because they account for a significant percentage of your revenues.

The client is disturbed because a constructive relationship with your company has turned sour. As they see it, they progressively gave your company far greater discounts than others. However, now they see you, as the company representative, as petulant and exploitative. The only problem for them is that your company accounts for a significant part of their revenue.

Sound familiar? These complaints echo in negotiations globally whether divorce settlements, trade negotiations, or a retailer trying to get a better deal to attract more consumers. Now neuroscience is underscoring some of the best concepts from management consultants and conflict resolution experts.

Roger Fisher, William L. Ury and Bruce Patton in their four-decade-old manual, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” wrote, as one example, that, “the ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as it may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess.” The ability to empathize is critical and one that Fisher, Ury, and Patton honed when either teaching students at Ivy League colleges, consulting to corporations or countries like South Africa and Northern Ireland that negotiated their way out of conflict.

Professor Vanessa van Ast and her team at the University of Amsterdam who study the impact on the brain of social threat say that when a person feels cornered or unfairly treated their fight or flight instincts kick in; the amygdala lights up. The prefrontal cortex area of rational thought declines in importance. Cognitive function deteriorates, and the person or persons who feel under threat become irrational. People stop hearing each other and conflict escalates. It is a pattern we see over and over in wage or hostage negotiations, marital disputes, international politics, and even town meetings.

A perception of being considered inferior or unfairly treated sees opponents or meeting participants disengage and become hostile. Fisher, Ury, and Patton wrote that in any meeting one should reflect on “perception, emotion, and communication.” A caveat is to understand too, that your perception may be flawed by a lack of awareness of cultural differences or your own bias.

How you lead a meeting and the parameters you set at the beginning are critical. You may need to cut people off or steer them back to the item under discussion on the agenda; this is possible if you set clear time limits and goals at the start of the meeting. If this is applied fairly, participants tend to conform.

Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute created a model of five social needs for a successful meeting:

  • Status: a desire for a place in the hierarchy
  • Certainty: what will happen next
  • Autonomy: a sense of agency or personal control
  • Relatedness: a feeling of being valued or respected within a group
  • Fairness: consistency in standards

He suggests that having a plan for your meeting means more than getting out an agenda in advance. He counsels that you need to increase opportunities for people to respond well to each other. When you send out the meeting invite, drop in some notes about how you’d like to see the meeting go, it allows others to set their expectations and also know how to behave.

Adding to meeting best practice is data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which have given neuroscientists and businesspeople new ideas about how to:

  • Enable creative thinking
  • Structure rewards
  • Control emotion in decision making
  • Find ways to control workflow as part of the default, reward, affect, and control networks

Jamil Zaki of Stanford and Jason Mitchell of Harvard have shown that when people divide up small amounts of money between themselves and others, as one example, the reward network responds better when they make generous, equitable choices. Perceptions of unfairness demotivate people.

Also, don’t be overambitious. Adam Waytz, a psychologist and associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management wrote in Harvard Business Review that, “highly specific, challenging goals can be harmful because they inhibit flexible thinking. General Motors in the early 2000s, set an objective of capturing 29 percent of the American car market. GM poured inordinate amounts of money into advertising and marketing, rather than funding innovation; this led GM to the brink of bankruptcy. A more flexible goal — such as obtaining top ratings on measures of innovation — would have helped GM realize multiple aims.” A better approach would have been for GM to have given “staff challenging problems to address rather than dictating what the outcome had to be.”

Waytz highlights the importance of intuition or hunches. “As the brain encounters events, choices, and people, it tags them with emotional significance. When people later have similar experiences, the brain accesses the tags as a shortcut to producing the appropriate feelings — doubt, anxiety, happiness, excitement.” We are taught to ignore niggling doubt, especially if it cannot be backed up by fact. “The neuroscience of emotion shows us that although hunches are fallible, it’s worth exploring them, negative gut feelings can prevent leaders from making overoptimistic decisions.”

He also notes that the brain’s control network encourages us to “limit the number of strategic initiatives to a manageable few. Asking people to pursue many goals fragments their attention and makes engaging in any mindful work difficult. With too many objectives to maintain and monitor, the control network spreads its limited resources thin, and we struggle to give enough attention to any of our responsibilities.” In other words, multitasking will lead to you being a “jack-of-all-trades and master of none” as the old cliché reminds us.

Take time to meditate, think, plan, and execute with all electronic devices and distractions switched off. Daniel Goleman in his book “Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence” noted that the tone of a meeting is always impacted based on one person’s mood, usually that of the leader or most significant individual in a room. How you enter the room and first engage with others sets the tone for the rest of the meeting.

Communication through storytelling or relatable anecdotes triggers mirroring, which allows audiences to experience similar brain activity to the storyteller through neural coupling — a process in which the listeners relate the story to their own experience. If you’ve ever laughed, wept or felt anxious while reading a book, watching a movie, or hearing another’s tale, then you understand the power of storytelling.

And finally, a reminder from “Getting to Yes”: “focus on interests not positions” and give those in the meeting or negotiation “a stake in the outcome by making sure they participate in the process.” After all no one can lead alone, leadership always entails motivating others.

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