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How To Negotiate By Keeping The Brain In Mind

Written by: Roar Thun Waegger, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Rationality is a myth. Instead, human behavior and circumstances are predictably irrational, especially in a conflict situation that negotiations often are. With a basic understanding of your brain negotiators can handle the human behavior significantly more efficiently.

Create an atmosphere of psychological safety so it can help you in your upcoming challenging conversation or negotiation?

Without consciousness, and I suggest some negotiation training, a negotiation will often be driven by a “winner-take-it-all trench war” approach.

It could be related to closing a deal between two parties, higher salary negotiation, or asking for a promotion dialogue. The process might be like a battlefield, a trench war where we “shoot” out our arguments and withdraw back into our trenches with our supporters backing our ego. The emotions drive us, they escalate, and this is what films, theaters, newspapers, and journalists all portray’ negotiations - and it sells. It is entertainment – for those not involved.

I want to suggest a different approach. In the leadership and negotiation training and through sparring sessions with my clients I emphasize that negotiations entail trust and collaboration more than pinning an opponent to the ground.

I believe in a collaborative approach to negotiation and solving conflict. I not only believe in it, but I have also practiced this negotiation approach for many years and it’s amazing having clients come back very satisfied.

Satisfied not only with their outcomes but also satisfied with the process – how they got there and satisfied with the relationship with the other party.

One definition of a negotiation is a strategic communication process to solve an issue, a problem, to make a deal. So, we need to focus on the strategic communication process – when we prepare, and during the talks.

I say we need to focus on the process, and the content, of course, because many of my clients and participants in training view negotiations as a rational conversation.

Rationality is a myth. Instead, human behavior and circumstances are predictably irrational, especially in a conflict situation that negotiations often are.

We need to demystify how the parties behave in negotiation and perhaps elsewhere in workplace situations, between spouses, and generally in life.

Whether we are managers or negotiators with long or short experience, we make analytical reasoning, but we must not only embrace the reasoned and analytical dialogue as our prevailing model for conflict management.

I believe all managers and negotiators should have a basic understanding of our brain and emotions (neuroscience) and basic negotiation frameworks. I believe that it can help them to see breakthroughs when working with the parties or working with the people they manage. With a basic understanding of our brain and emotions, I believe they can handle human behavior significantly more efficiently.

When the parties engage a negotiator, or they come to their manager with a conflict between themselves they are often in crisis. They have most likely already been in this crisis for some time. They've been trying to find a solution and ended into or at a dead end.

When humans are in crisis, the brain secretes cortisol. Increased cortisol levels affect what we put a spotlight on, how much information a person can hold, process, and use at any given time, our decision making, our risk assessment, our rational cognition, and our perception of "threat".

The emotional and physiological response is largely the same for physical threats (a dog attacks you) as for emotional threats ("she should have full care of the children after the divorce").

Our cognitive response alternates between three basic levels of function:

  1. The F3 response - fight, fly, freeze, as well as breathing and heartbeat, is our neural network. It links us to survival - a very ancient network that is our instinctive brain.

  2. Fear, anger, and love is our social bond. It helps us make decisions and is our emotional brain.

  3. Our attention to thoughts, planning, reflection, and problem-solving is our executive ability and rational functions. This one is our thinking brain.

The practice of various forms of science, accounting, auditing, engineering, law, etc. are activities of rational functions in our thinking brain, the neo-cortex brain. The challenge is that decision-making processes as we do in negotiations and management are a sub-neo-cortex activity.

When one party suddenly changes position and we think they are acting "irrationally", it is that another part of the brain (the non-executive part, our emotional brain has taken over the functionality.

Anyone who is a parent knows that it is a common act to get angry at their children, and it is a relational topic that has remnants from the reptile brain ("my child is in danger, and I need to act").

If our executive brain can reconsider this, in time, then we may be able to ask ourselves (our self-reflection) whether anger is the right answer in this situation. But to be able to do this we need, in advance, to be aware, use consciousness and training a few times – to increase our odds of do the right reaction.

Let me give you another example. Anyone who has been sitting around a negotiation table knows that it is a common act to react to the counterpart when they make their outreaches position, and it is a relational topic that has remnants from the instinctive brain ("my client or myself is in danger, and I need to act").

If our executive brain can reconsider this, in time, then we may be able to ask ourselves (self-reflection) whether a reaction is the right answer or the right action in this situation.

Consider how useful a conscious manager or a trained negotiator can be if he/she recognizes when the other party suddenly changes position, and we think they are acting "irrationally".

Although we are "connected" to social co-operation and to connect, we are highly reactive to threats as when the other party makes their outreaches position or use threatening, ambiguous, or blurred communicate. Our brain has an attraction to the negative. Our brain has a negativity bias.

This means that our sympathetic nervous system lights up on a touch of a threat experience, and that "threats, punishment, and pain" is more effective than "rewards!" This creates an internal critic who robs us of a desire for a solution, peace, and emotional well-being.

Think for a moment about the instinctive brain. The system has been used for millions of years to notice negative experiences and will alarm a negative experience as prominent in memory.

With threatening, ambiguous, or blurred communication between the parties in a negotiation or between a manager and a subordinate, this means that if a negative interpretation can be drawn, then it will be done, rather than a positive interpretation.

Our brain’s negativity bias is so well worked out that it takes five positive actions to undo a single negative action or word. This is part of the reason parties in a negotiation will do more to avoid losses than to realize a gain, more to limit risks than to be creative and explore opportunities. The parties will more easily go to battle than be problem-solvers.

The avoidance system – with threats, punishment, and pain - is routinely connected so that it hijacks the other two systems, the approaches system with rewards, and the premium system to connect with the others.

The result of an experience of threat activity, such as a high demand or acting provocatively in our communication, is that the party in a dispute overestimates the threat and thus will go to battle, and they underestimate the possibility that lies in problem-solving in its initial assessments.

Therefore, as a facilitator and a sparring partner, in negotiations and challenging conversations, I assist my clients in their preparation to reconsider what they experience as pain or threat.

The same goes for a mediator or a manager. When colleagues come to you asking for help as their manager, they need your help to reconsider what they experience as pain or threat. Otherwise, the brain continues to pump cortisol and amplify the stress they have with the other party. Perhaps someone recognizes an argument they have had with their colleague, their partner, or their child at this point?

The cost of not steering the party towards reconsidering the action or words is that actions and decisions taken while the party feels threatened will lead to overreactions, which makes the other party feel threatened, and a negative spiral will start, and the parties will slide further apart.

Negative emotions limit the party's responses and alternatives to specific actions – such as the F3 response (Fight, Flight, or Freeze). The approach system is blocked, consequently limiting the brain's ability to analyze alternatives to a negotiated solution and opportunities for creative solution proposals.

What can you do?

My advice is to handle yourself first – it’s the same as the air stewardess says during safety instruction – “put on your mask first before helping others”.

If I, in my priming into the negotiation process and in my preparation, will be able to handle myself, what I call the ME-phase, before WE meet, I will use my consciousness and knowledge to understand or at least try to understand the other party’s motivation.

Then I can help create the fundament for a new path. A path where we will start looking at the content together. The conflicting positions, the underlying conflicting interests, but also our separate and common interests, in addition to a path on how we can create a constructive process. Let us start my negotiation with how we shall negotiate.

To walk the path toward getting the influence of the other party, to create an atmosphere of psychological safety, so you later can close the deal with them, we need to use a lot more than our rationale. We need to use our whole minds – the rational, logical, and emotional minds.

In this, we are using concepts from neuroscience to influence emotions as a core skill in navigating our communication with others.

I train and consult clients to be aware of themselves and to combine awareness, knowledge, and experiences in neuroscience and negotiations, and conflict resolution.

To be specific what we do when we prime a negotiation process and prepare to meet the other party, we prime ourselves on how we will deal with them and link them more to excitement and well-being than to the other four emotions, such as anger, regret, fear, or sadness.

If we start a difficult conversation, a meeting, or a negotiation when parties feel anger, sadness or threat, their minds will be in what we might call “the stubborn state” – this is the time when our brain cannot take in information that does not fit, and thus maintains or justifies the emotion we feel.

Our ability to think rationally is disconnected. For example, have you ever tried to apologize to someone while they're still mad at you? It's useless. Stubbornness condition lasts an average of 20 minutes, and the person experiencing the strong feeling simply cannot take in any new information until the stubborn state has passed.

If you are not aware of this you might invite to a meeting and in a good western tradition or culture of efficiency, you go straight to the main point where you know the other party and you disagree, maybe the most. What state do you believe the other party’s mind will be in? The stubborn state, and their ability to think rationally is disconnected.

Their instinctive brain used for millions of years to notice negative experiences have alarmed a negative experience. They will interpret your positive ideas and positive intentions as threatening and ambiguous, and negative interpretations most certainly have been drawn.

Remember, our brain’s negativity bias is so well worked out that it takes five positive actions to undo a single negative action or word. Therefore, we prime and prepare well for the process so we can minimize or avoid losses and risks and maximize the ability to create an atmosphere to realize a gain, be creative and explore opportunities. We help avoid going to battle and more to be problem-solvers.

I say to my participants in training – this is not about being avoiding, soft, nice, and being best friends with the other part.

This is about avoiding walking away from the negotiation table when the communication becomes hard, positional, and difficult, and to be sitting around the table and sort them out, maximizing your deal, and create win-win solutions so you make sure the other party will fulfill the agreement after it is signed.

We can't prevent thoughts and feelings, either negative or positive.

We can train ourselves to become more aware and conscious on how we will react to them. Thoughts and feelings are information and not directives. Emotions in negotiations are indicators of needs, and interests – embrace them.

The best decisions in the board room as well as around the negotiation tables can be improved when we focus on making the discussion more robust. That means embracing vigorous debate instead of shying away from conflict. This means, creating an atmosphere of psychological safety.

This can help managers and negotiators in their upcoming challenging conversations and negotiation.

As a manager, you can do this with your team, and as a negotiator, you can do this in your preparation with your team but also during the negotiation. After being creative you need to evaluate ideas and see what elements are sustainable and what ideas are not – because you not only negotiate a deal – you also want the deal to manifest and be fulfilled.

I hope you as a manager or negotiator can reflect on these advices and act on them in your upcoming work.


CEO |Facilitator

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Roar Thun Waegger, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Roar Thun Waegger followed his passion for working with his clients to create great deals and to solve conflicts. A reformed lawyer that now is dedicated to facilitating negotiation and mediation training, and conflict resolution workshops, he is also an internationally certified mediator and a sparring partner for clients all over the world. Roar is the founder and CEO of Waegger Negotiation Institute. He facilitates and tailors negotiation processes for his clients so that they can overcome difficulties, using the intricacies of The Power of Nice® or the unique combined negotiation and neuroscience concept Negotiation with the Brain in MIND®. His years of experience have taught him that problem-solving.



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