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Having a successful negotiation, in scientific terms, means that you and they have arrived at a meeting of needs

The science of winning negotiations

The science of winning negotiations


Negotiating is about relationships but also about meeting needs, and here’s how understanding the background process can help, explains Dr Bob Murray

T here have been millions of words written about negotiating, but little about the neurogenetics of the process – that is, the human system which makes it work or not work. Since much of a lawyer’s work consists of negotiating with clients, other lawyers and in court, it seems to me that a bit of practical science would be in order. Negotiating, like all things human, is about relationships. To the human system (our neurogenetics) what you’re negotiating about is secondary to the goal of forming or solidifying a mutually supportive relationship. Having a successful negotiation, in scientific terms means that you and they have arrived at a meeting of needs. All relationships are, essentially, a mutual satisfaction of needs. The more needs you have of each other (which can be met, are concrete and therefore actionable) the deeper the relationship. As the negotiating process develops, you discover not only the other party’s needs but also things that you both share. The more commonalities you have the greater the trust between you. Even if there was no mutual trust at the start of the process the accumulation of commonalities will allow trust to develop. For this reason a successful negotiation should begin with chit-chat. This is in many ways the most important part of the process. It’s most likely some early commonalities will be established – be it the weather, politics, parenthood or whatever. This will release the trust and bonding neurochemical oxytocin in critical areas of the brain. Your and the other party’s decision-making systems will be primed to seek agreement, to trust each other and to seek compromise in order to solidify the relationship. QUICK AGREEMENTS As the negotiating process gets underway it’s important to reach some quick agreements. These agreements might be quite trivial, for example an agreement to meet again in a week if you run out of time during this round. However, they prompt the neurogenetic system to begin the flow of the reward chemical dopamine to areas of the brain concerned with joint action, empathy and cooperation. Speaking of reward neurochemicals, it is vital that food is provided during the negotiations. Food induces glutamate to cross the blood/brain barrier and glutamate makes the brain more open to agreement. Many studies have shown that agreements come more easily shortly after eating. Therefore, taking a client to lunch is a great idea. As we mentioned earlier every relationship is essentially a mutual satisfaction of needs, therefore one of the most important elements of successful negotiating is finding out what the other party’s real needs are and seeing where these mesh with yours. I have witnessed negotiating sessions between lawyers where one set of lawyers have said something like “My client needs time to consider your offer” and they’ve gotten away with it! Since there’s no specificity as to what they are actually going to consider or how long they’re going to take, it’s a meaningless need. A needs-based negotiation might go something like this: A: “My client needs time to consider your offer.” B: “What is it in the offer that they need to consider?” A: “We’re worried about the IP-use arrangements.” We’re edging towards something specific, but we haven’t gotten there yet. B: “This is a crucial issue for our clients. What exactly are you worried about?” Another important issue which many negotiators ignore is the relative importance of needs. Some needs are nice-to-haves, others are much more important but not deal-breakers and other needs are such that if they’re not met the deal will go south. Here B has signaled that the IP-issue is potentially a deal-breaker. A: “The ongoing payments after the three-year period?” Note that we’ve arrived at specificity. B: “OK, so we need you to give us an alternative suggestion by 3pm next Friday.” A: “Next Friday is not possible because we have our annual away-days that week, so we need more time. Could we make it Monday at 3pm?” A good exchange of needs has taken place. B: “Agreed. You will give us a counter-offer regarding the IP arrangements on Monday at 3pm.” This is obviously a very simplistic example, but you probably get the idea and most of your successful negotiations will most likely have followed a fairly similar pattern. Such an exchange of needs cements the relationship and allows neurochemistry work in your favour. In any negotiation it is most important that you use dialogue skills that science has shown are the prime influencers. We call these skills ALPS – an acronym for Ask, Listen, Praise and Specificity. Asking respectful yet often probing questions is an essential negotiating and relationship-building skill. In terms of influencing, asking powerful questions is far more important than making statements. Questions, especially ones that show that you’re interested in the person you’re negotiating with, show that you’re in a way part of their support system and more trustworthy. They will be more willing to make concessions favourable to you in order to strengthen the relationship. GOOD LISTENER In order to ask good questions, you must be a good listener. We don’t really hear about 60 per cent of what people say. We’re too busy ‘reloading’ – figuring what we’re going to say next to hear what they’re saying. The art of what we call ‘mindful listening’ is about concentrating on the words that the other party is using and using them to form the basis of your questioning. For example: “I’m really concerned about this issue.” “Concerned?” “Yes, I’m afraid that members of the Board may use it as an excuse to pull the plug on this whole initiative.” “Members of the board?” “Yes. In particular Tom Manners and Judy Coherne. They’ve been against it from day one.” “I know them both. How can I help?” Without this questioning the pathway to a solution would not have arisen. Instead, either the second speaker would have offered a solution based on too little knowledge— which usually happens—or both might have given up, thinking the whole thing was too difficult. Any successful negotiation also requires positive statements and praise. In fact, many studies have shown that a ratio of at least 5 positive statements to every negative one is necessary for success. The reason for this is that a successful outcome requires both parties to have enough dopamine flowing to overcome the effects of the stress hormone cortisol, which is normally present in similar situations. Negative statements induce cortisol other stress neurochemicals and although negative statements are often necessary during the process, they can cause great damage without the positive counterbalance of praise, acknowledgement or relationship-enhancing declarations. Finally, beware of your biases and your assumptions. We all go into any negotiation with certain assumptions which we rarely challenge. What we know from research carried out at Harvard and Case Western Universities is that overall 70 per cent of these are wrong and what’s more some 90 per cent of assumptions about other people are wrong in some way. Often the questions you ask will force the other party to challenge his or her assumptions or biases and, if you’re lucky, their questions will do the same for you. So, to sum up: —— Begin with chit-chat and build up agreements —— Listen for and affirm commonalities —— Ask more than tell —— Make sure the needs you exchange are concrete, actionable and timely —— Listen to the words people use and make use of them in formulating questions —— Use praise and positive statements —— Challenge your assumptions—and theirs