The psychology behind successful negotiations

In my role as a negotiation coach, tutor and facilitator (a role which trains, educates and supports individuals and organisations globally across all industries in their quest to achieve their desired outcomes and beyond) I have noticed a repeated pattern which has prompted me to write this article.  Invariably in the break or at lunch (if face to face) or in my inbox (if virtual) a woman will quietly seek me out and start the following conversation: ‘Melanie, would you mind if I ask you a question? I wondered if I could ask your opinion/about your experience/if you have some advice…I hope you don’t mind, but do you have any advice or tips for women in negotiation?  You see I am about to enter a big negotiation with my team and I am a bit worried/concerned/would appreciate a chat…’  At this point we make a date or time to explore further and invariably when I start asking questions around the motivation behind this request I am pretty certain I will know what the responses will be.

A quick Google search under ‘women and negotiation’ will reveal pages of enlightening and insightful information about negotiating for a promotion/salary/job prospect which is of course informative and helpful (particularly in certain sectors).  However, when digging a bit deeper to find out what is out there to help in the cut and thrust of commercial negotiating I can find nothing. This is a very different environment with its organisational expectations, pressure and responsibility on a daily basis. These are often high value and high stakes interactions with aggressive players who can focus on, and try to take advantage of a woman on the opposing team.  And for men –  please don’t think this article is solely for female negotiators – I had a conversation in my course only last week when the shift turned to the impact of different genders on negotiation style, where one of the male participants shared ‘but we don’t know how to negotiate with women either’, and I absolutely see this too.  This can be so dependent on age, culture, experience etc. My colleague was speaking with a leading global (male) commercial director recently about future business training needs and the additional strength in mixed gender negotiation teams – when the client suddenly shared ‘I have never thought that men and women might negotiate differently’.

So, a point to note here, I am not pigeon-holing anyone, but this is a commentary on my observations over 10 years in my position working with many global industries.

But before I go any further, as you are reading this what are your thoughts about gender differences in negotiation? What have you experienced or observed yourself?

In this article I will assume that you have done all of the data/fact/analytical preparation thoroughly (our ENS framework will help with this), and you are now looking at how you will manage the negotiation.  But more importantly I am going to focus on how you will manage you in the negotiation.

My experiences of the need for support for women when negotiating externally and internally (sometimes more of a concern than external negotiations, how to manage your manager often comes up) mainly fall into the following categories:

  • managing emotions
  • being heard
  • frustration at not being taken seriously
  • confidence (overcoming and controlling nerves)
  • establishing credibility
  • the ability to be assertive without being labelled as difficult.

What would you add to this list?

The first step in behavioural change is actually recognising what is happening. To help us understand at a deeper level we need to take this back to our subconscious physiological reactions to learn how to not only manage these reactions, but also turn them to our advantage.

Understanding the emotion of negotiation – the neuroscience behind our behaviours 

Living in the Limbic System – Let’s break it down to the fundamentals of what’s happening. Our brain’s primary objective is to protect us and when it feels challenged or under threat we instinctively revert to our fight or flight mode – it makes decisions without us even being aware of what is happening in the initial stages. It closes down our Executive functioning brain – our Pre-Frontal cortex (PFC).  The PFC is where we function at our highest level, where our rational thoughts and decision making are processed, and our limbic system kicks in with a chain of events which result in a rush of hormones flooding our endocrine system  (internal hormonal messaging system) to prepare us for survival. This activates our sympathetic nervous system to prepare to fight or flee.  In the short term this will do no harm and can actually enhance our behaviours (cortisol gets such bad press, but is not all bad – we need it to wake us up in the morning, for example).  Our senses becomes more acute, a tip here – reframe this as a positive in a negotiation – enhanced hearing, for example, is a key skill often missing; pupils dilate to take in as much detail of the landscape as possible – think of how much more you can observe around you, for example, subtle exchanges between the counterpart etc.

However in our continuous challenges of daily life we can easily find ourselves living in the limbic system which brings untold damage to us mentally and physically.  Instead of fight or flight I call this physiological reaction ‘stress or distress’ to reflect more accurately who we are today and negotiations are recognised as potentially extremely stressful interactions. Do any of the following resonate?:

  1. Your inner voice gets louder, telling you how important this negotiation is, how everyone else in the room is so much more capable/knowledgeable/experienced etc.
  2. Emotions take control – nerves manifest themselves in the following manner – speech speeds up, mind goes blank, a slight tremor takes over voice/hands, dry mouth, trouble breathing steadily etc.
  3. Reactions appear out of nowhere – anger at not being listened to, or being talked over. Or, conversely feeling tearful and being afraid of letting yourself down in public.

However we can change the way we instinctively react and therefore how others react to us.

Changing how you think and behave

We have the capability to not only change how our brain behaves, but also that of our counterparts.  With the right ‘tools and techniques’ we can begin to override our innate reactions and create new patterns, ones which will have a positive impact on our physiology – ones which will engage our para-sympathetic nervous system (restoring our internal status quo) and enable us to function at a higher and more confident level.  We can actually trick our brains and consciously call the shots! Olympic standard athletes actually switch their hormonal release on and off depending on what they want their bodies to do. To create an adrenaline rush prior to an event they clench their fists and jaws to such an extent that this signals to the brain that they are under threat. After an event they will regulate the hormonal release through deep breathing exercises. By reframing your stressful situation through a variety of actions you can retrain your brain.

At ENS we talk about the PROCESS of a negotiation and we know that over 80% of the potential outcome is achieved in the preparation for a negotiation.  This should actually begin with preparing ourselves for each stage throughout the negotiation time frame. What do you do to prepare yourself? If you are familiar with the ENS methodology think how you can use the concepts to improve your own personal development.

Personal preparation 

This is the time to take a deep dive personally and reflect on how you behave when negotiating.  Ask yourself the following questions:

1. What are your emotional triggers in a negotiation?

  • Language – how does aggressive language impact you?
  • People – do you find some more difficult than others? Why?
  • Places – what do you feel about virtual negotiations?
  • Events – do you have negative memories of a previous engagement?

Learn what your triggers are and start to delve into why. What has happened previously to activate this? For example, very competitive negotiators can induce heightened emotions. Take a moment to think – why are they behaving like this? What is motivating this behaviour i.e control/ego – need to feel important/look good in front of others/insecurity? By exploring deeper hidden personal behaviours you might be able to gain an insight into the real drivers behind these behaviours.  How can you now manage these personal needs? More importantly, how can you make sure you don’t inadvertently insult these personal needs and inflate them even more?

Think about the language others use – replace their more aggressive use of words with more collaborative language in your own mind.  This will take away the power. For example turn ‘you’ into ‘we’; ‘demand’ into ‘request’ etc.  At the end of your negotiation ask yourself what went well and what would you do differently, rather than what went wrong. This has the impact of not reinforcing and embedding negatives.

How confident are you negotiating in the virtual space? Two years on from enforced virtual meetings it appears that this medium is here to stay.  It is even more important to be comfortable in this space.  How can you build relationships without being in the same physical space? Familiarise yourself with simple techniques to engage with your counterpart/s. Use peoples’ names – at a basic level this activates oxytocin (relationship building hormone) release and gives a slight dopamine boost (we feel recognised) to the counterpart.  In this space the temptation is to talk very quickly without pausing – you have a message to deliver in a limited time.  However, it is even more important to slow down, pause and ask questions to confirm understand etc.  This will help you keep up engagement and further build trust at a subliminal level.

2. How do you talk to yourself? What language do you use? For example:

  • Belittling ‘you know you don’t have the right accreditations to be in this position’
  • Harsh ‘you misjudged the climate of the last meeting through lack of preparation* and everyone knew it was your fault’
  • Critical ‘you let the team down last time, it’s bound to happen again’

Did you know that our brains have a negativity bias? The majority of our neurons are constantly scanning for negativity. Again this served as a protector thousands of years ago when we needed to be aware of potential threat. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has a great analogy for this ‘ your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones’. We are wired to forget the good things and fixate on the negative.  For every negative in the above examples get into the habit of countering with a positive.  Doing this regularly will begin to shift your thinking.  Practise really does make perfect and you can rewire your brain to start thinking differently.  In fact we have a specific questioning technique strategy at ENS which forces our brains to think differently to recognise the positive and counter this negativity bias.

By tuning into our own fears we can re-educate our response mechanisms.  For example, try looking for the positive to reframe a different way of thinking:

Wow this negotiation must be really important to me if I am feeling like this – I will break it down into small components and work through each element methodically, both content and process, to make sure I am comfortable with and aware of all aspects’ Our ENS systematic preparation template* will support you here.


Instead of ‘I am dreading this because I know I will crumble/lose control etc…’ reframe the language to a positive statement ‘I acknowledge that this is not my strong point, however I will focus on XYZ first because I know I am comfortable on that matter…’

The use of questions is extremely powerful and something women are naturally  accomplished at. Instead of making statements to defend or attack, use open questions to explore. E.g ‘please help me understand your stance on that as I feel I may have missed something’ or ‘what does a positive outcome look like for you?’ or ‘what impact could that have’.  Hypothetical questions are a fantastic tool for testing the water without committing ‘what if we are able to…’ A well placed question can be a powerful technique for buying thinking time too.

The above are just a few suggestions of how our ENS process model can be used to support women in negotiation.  Look around at people you admire – what is it about them? Do they listen, ask questions, seek to understand your opinion? What do successful women have or do that makes them powerful?  Think of Jacinta Arden, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Michelle Obama – all very different styles, however all very successful in their own right.

Self-care (or staying out of the limbic system) 

In an increasingly tough world with its many challenges intense negotiations can take their toll on us so it is imperative to build self-care into our pre negotiation prep too. Our inner talk wires our brain – don’t give it the freedom or space.

Journal your feelings pre and post negotiation.  Record how you felt.  What were your physical symptoms and what were your triggers?  Look out for patterns.  However, make sure you record all the positives too, every time someone praises or compliments you and your team; when a strategy worked out well etc.  Even if it was only a small part of the overall outcome still recognise the benefit.  Communicate regularly with your team, celebrate when you have worked well together. Celebrate the mini success along the way to get a dopamine hit – even crossing something off the to do list.

Praise others.  It has been proven that showing gratitude is not only hugely impactful on the other party, but gives us a boost too.

Forgive yourself for a mistake, but don’t keep revisiting it.  Learn from it and move on.

Who do you admire as an orator, negotiator or just in general? Why is this? I would put money on the answer to that would be they listen, ask questions and want to understand you and the situation. Personally it took me a long time to get where I am today and looking back I can see the behaviours which shaped me, but also denied me success at times.  My biggest hurdle was comparing myself to others, in fact one person in particular.  My big breakthrough came when I realised that I could and should be me.  Whilst I am never going to match this other person on many levels, I now appreciate I have enough of my own strengths and capabilities to confidently say ‘I am me and I can do this in my style’. My lesson? Accept there will be people more accomplished/experienced, however find and focus on who you are and what you bring.

This has been a small insight into building your own negotiating skills and style. Please share your thoughts with me and do get in touch if you wish to learn how I can help you develop further….

* ENS Negotiation Preparation Template is available to all ENS Alumni through the Insider Hub. If you are a previous ENS course participant, access the Insider Hub here with your login details. 

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