Stress and aggression trigger the brain’s threat system
So many negotiations are unsatisfactory because we dive into money and numbers before uncovering the needs or hot buttons of the other side. Negotiation then becomes a battle of wills to see who can squeeze the most from the other side. This makes negotiation a stressful, negative experience, triggering the brain’s threat system. This can undermine long-term trusting business relationships, creating a win-lose mentality rather than win-win.
What’s important to the other party?
Before negotiations begin in earnest, it is essential to find out what is important to the other side. It is also the time for you to demonstrate real listening and ask questions to show that you fully understand their needs. This will help maintain rapport and activate the brain’s reward circuitry, getting negotiations off to a healthy start. Think for a moment about the last time you chose a builder to work on your house. You may have told them that price was critical, but in actual fact, there would have been many other factors that influenced your choice, for example, their reputation, trustworthiness, guarantees, quality of workmanship, personal recommendations etc. Similarly when you choose a web designer or marketing expert, price is in the mix, but probably not at the top.
Before negotiations begin in earnest, it is essential to find out what is important to the other side.
This is backed up by research by Neil Rackham showing that business-to-business purchasing decisions are based firstly on the vendor relationship, then vendor stability, followed by responsiveness. Price is only fourth on the list. However when we are the seller, and the other side tells us that price is the key driver of the purchasing decision, it is all too easy for us to accept the statement at face value and offer concessions out of fear of losing the deal.
Find out their interest vs position
Asking questions and listening provides a much gentler and less hostile start to the negotiation. It helps to reduce the fear factor on both sides. It gives both parties a clear understanding of each other’s needs and helps to uncover the interests behind the position as demonstrated by the following story:
Two sisters were fighting over an orange. After a lot of arguing, they took half each. One sister ate her half and threw away the peel. The other grated her half of the peel to make marmalade and threw away the flesh.
How many opportunities for a win-win deal are you throwing away through insufficient or too narrow discussion? Next time you negotiate, make sure you spend a significant proportion of the time discussing the interests at play, rather than haggling over your position.
We hardwire instincts in our brain
Day-to-day living requires us to process huge amounts of intricate information. Just to cross a busy road, for example, we need to work out how far away the next car is, how fast it’s travelling, how wide the road is, and how long it will take us to cross. We do this in milliseconds and yet we don’t even know we’re doing it.
The ability to cross a road is so complex that it takes the first 10 years of our life to develop the necessary brain circuitry. We call this hardwiring – it’s automatic and it’s non-conscious.
People we consider exceptionally talented – musicians, university professors, sports-people – similarly hardwire their skills: a tennis pro knows where a 120mph serve will bounce because they pick up their opponent’s micro signals, muscle movements etc. and process them almost instantly so they are in the correct position to return the serve. Years of practice have created the hardwiring to make such abilities seem instinctive.
How often have we heard the expression “they’re a natural”? The truth however isn’t so glamorous – as Michelangelo said “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.”
The plastic brain
The brain’s ability to reorganise and restructure itself is called neuroplasticity, and it gives human beings a unique survival advantage. For instance, we are able to inhabit any part of the planet because our brain can wire itself to survive under different conditions. We also learn and hardwire complicated tasks such as driving, writing, using a smartphone etc.
While neuroplasticity allows us to go through life hardwiring new brain structures it also brings its own problems. Take driving to work –we often can’t remember the journey we’ve just taken because we’re on autopilot: all well and good until one day we find ourselves driving to the office when we should be heading to the airport!
If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.
It’s easy to trick your brain
Our brain also has a tendency to make sense of partial information and jump to conclusions, sometimes perceiving things that aren’t actually there which neuroscientists believe is a survival instinct from our hunter-gatherer days. For example, if we see an orange flash in the jungle, our brain is hardwired to fill in the missing information to keep us safe – we perceive it as a tiger and prepare for action – even if it then turns out to be something innocuous.
This survival imperative has drawbacks – our brain often fills in the missing information based on hunches and draws the wrong conclusions. In the Kanizsa Triangle (below), our brain pieces together a complete picture from separate fragments to give the impression of a bright white triangle, and a black-outlined triangle.
We see whatever our brain thinks we should!
Look at the chessboard below. Unbelievably squares A and B are the same colour but B appears lighter once the chessboard is complete. This shows in a dramatic way that we only see what we expect, not what’s really there – even when we know that A and B are the same colour, our brain overrides this knowledge. Incredibly 90% of what we see is generated from within the brain (the occipital cortex) and only 10% arrives through our eyes and optic nerve. Ultimately, we see whatever our brains think we should!
In the same way that the brain tricks us with optical illusions, it can also misinform us with labeling and stereotyping errors (thinking illusions). For example, when companies identify ‘high flyers’ or ‘under-performers’, the danger is that those labels will stick. Categorisation is so convenient for the brain that we don’t look for any evidence to challenge our perceptions, so if a ‘low’ performer does good work we may not see it, and if a ‘top’ performer falters we may fail to notice.
Confirmation bias is selective thinking, where we tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs, and ignore, or undervalue evidence that contradicts them: hence the phrase ‘give a dog a bad name’. Powerful as our instinct is, it can lead us to the wrong decisions! All the research shows that we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases, but knowing we have them helps us to make more balanced decisions.
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So what are tradeables?
Let’s take an airline as an example. In years gone by you bought a ticket and that was that. Today, we have to consider how much hold luggage, hand baggage, meals, how flexible the ticket is, penalties for changes, speedy boarding, allocated seats, airmiles payment and redemption, loyalty points and the list goes on. Airlines were forced to change their pricing strategy because of market pressures introduced by the low-cost flyers. Yet many businesses I talk to today stick to inflexible pricing strategies and then moan that their customers think they are too expensive.
In the case of a one-off purchase, for example buying a car, the relationship element is less important than when we are dealing with a customer, supplier or third party over time. In this case the relationship is just as important as the negotiation outcome itself. What’s at stake is future business, reputation and of course the ease of working together after the negotiation. The key error that most of us make is not spending enough time identifying our tradeables. As a result the relationship can suffer.
What neuroscience says…
Imagine you’re selling website design services, your tradeables might be licence fee, training, maintenance, guarantees, hosting, periodic upgrades, support etc.
Being clear about exactly what you’re selling puts you in a much stronger position if the customer demands a discount. Without tradeables you will either have to agree to a discount which will directly impact your bottom line, or you will have to say no, which risks spoiling the relationship and could even blow the deal.
Tradeables allow you to provide options for the other party. And neuroscience demonstrates that options create a sense of control which triggers the brain’s reward system. Whereas being told sorry, that’s our bottom line triggers our threat system and impacts the relationship negatively. In essence what you’re trying to achieve in any negotiation is to find something that will cost you little but is of significant value to them, and vice versa. Thus win-win!
All too often people believe they have no option other than to yield to price concessions - with a certain amount of resentment or resignation. However, careful consideration of your tradeables and pricing options provides a route to better outcomes and better relationships.
Give them options
We were recently negotiating with a large corporate to roll-out a global training programme. Their procurement department was trying to squeeze us on price. We knew if we started yielding, that would be the thin end of the wedge! So instead, we offered them a series of pre-prepared tradeables – online follow-up, certification, refresher webinars. So rather than saying no to a discount (which would have triggered a threat response), tradeables enabled us to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to work with them to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement.
All too often people believe they have no option other than to yield to price concessions – with a certain amount of resentment or resignation. However, careful consideration of your tradeables and pricing options provides a route to better outcomes and better relationships.
I recently got into an argument with a family member and with Christmas coming up it reminded me that this is often a time for conflict. Understanding its scientific roots might help reduce its impact.
The part of the brain that is responsible for detecting threats is called the amygdala. In our hunter/gatherer days a threat would have been a large predator so this was critical for our survival.
Today physical threats are rare, however our brain hasn’t evolved at the same pace as our environment so our threat-detection circuitry is still highly attuned. Threats today are more likely to be to social threats, and the brain treats these in exactly the same way as physical threats.
A particularly powerful threat is what David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute refers to as a status threat, where we feel someone is belittling us or trying to get one over on us.
We are particularly sensitive to status threats because in our hunter/gatherer days, being further up the hierarchy, meant more food and mating opportunities. Being lower down the pecking order meant less food and sex!
When somebody upsets us, this triggers a threat, and instantly engages our non-conscious brain in a freeze, fight, flight response.
A fight response will mean we argue back, verbally attacking them to re-assert our status. We must win the argument. We must be right! We are hijacked by our emotions. Our non-conscious brain is doing what it is designed to do.
However once we’ve calmed down we may regret our hasty reaction. But by then it’s often too late – the damage has been done. The old adage ‘words said in anger are hard to take back’ bears much wisdom. As does the advice from my grandmother, ‘count to 10 dearest’.
If the perceived ‘attack’ is from our boss, fighting back might be detrimental to our career prospects! In this case our non-conscious brain might choose a freeze or flight response. This will mean we disengage, bear a grudge or harbour resentment – often ruminating for days about what we’d like to have said.
Whether at home or at work, managing social interactions is a fundamental necessity. It is one thing to do it when things are going well, but to do it in the face of conflict and adversity is the sign of real mastery
The brain is a social organ
According to neuroscientist, Matt Liebermann, rehearsing social interactions in our imagination is evolution’s way for us to get more skilled in being social. Our brain is a social organ and our human competitive advantage comes from collaboration with others.
So how do you best manage conflict? Firstly recognise that your brain is designed to react to emotional triggers. These are your survival instincts and, whether you like it or not, you will respond on autopilot with a fight, flight or freeze response.
The trick is to interrupt these automatic non-conscious responses by engaging the conscious brain. One technique for doing this is called labelling. This literally means trying to label the emotion we are feeling. In my case the emotion was humiliation. By forcing our conscious brain to identify our emotional state, this diverts attention and blood-flow away from our non-conscious brain.
Once I did this, I was able to actually feel empathy towards my antagonist and the poignant sting I’d felt greatly receded. This short-cuts pointless battling, entrenched opinions and the risk of escalation.
Whether at home or at work, managing social interactions is a fundamental necessity. It is one thing to do it when things are going well, but to do it in the face of conflict and adversity is the sign of real mastery.
The perfect opportunity to engage your people and boost performance?
Sadly, performance reviews are all too often the source of grief for employees and managers alike, focusing on missed targets and shortcomings.
If an employee anticipates an adversarial review, they’re going to waste a disproportionate amount of time preparing their defence and gathering supporting evidence. Stress and negativity trigger the freeze, fight, flight response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline which shuts down our ability to think clearly and relate positively to others.
Friend not foe
There is another way. A strengths-based approach to performance reviews focuses on successes, learnings and things to do differently next time. This triggers the brains reward circuitry, unleashing insight, innovation and interpersonal ability. Businesses that adopt this approach are generally fulfilling places to work where individuals grow and the organisation prospers.
The naysayers amongst you may be wondering ‘what if the employee has under performed and needs to be pulled up’. The truth is that we are all our own worst critics and your criticism will only rub salt into the wound. Recent research by the Neuroleadership Institute shows that 17 times out of 20, negative feedback (even when positively intentioned) does more harm than good as employees attempt to justify themselves, make excuses and blame others. All this causes resentment on both sides and undermines performance still further.
Focus on what's been achieved and the potential of the employee (rather than criticising their current performance)
Solutions not problems
Focusing on problems and underachievement only embeds the behaviours you are trying to change, thereby having the opposite effect than you intend. In contrast, a solution-focused approach looks at what has been achieved and focuses on the potential of the employee (rather than criticising their current performance). It is progressive and forward looking, which is energising for all involved and is important for developing new brain networks that encourage personal insight and change, and feed the brain’s reward circuits.
Resilience: how to bounce back from setbacks
Some people seem to deal with whatever is thrown at them. Deadlines, back-to-back meetings, long hours, presentations, staff issues, family, etc, etc. They take it all in their stride.
Traditional thinking leads us to believe these lucky people are born with a natural ability to deal with stress – while the rest of us struggle to cope with life’s constant demands. For some, stress is just too overwhelming.
However, neuroscience shows us that learning to handle stress and develop an optimistic outlook is within everyone’s grasp because we all have the power to literally re-wire our brain.
The science of optimism and how it affects you
Just as the brain enables us to learn a musical instrument or a new sport, it can also become hardwired to respond automatically to negative stimuli. This unconsciously learnt thought process keeps us stuck in problem-mode and stops us even noticing possible solutions – the glass is always half empty.
Left to its own devices, our brain will focus on the negative. The brain’s threat detection centre is the amygdala. This evolutionary survival mechanism keeps us continually alert to potential danger. Unfortunately the result is that many of us carry a level of background anxiety and are permanently looking for things that could go wrong.
The destructive power of pessimism…
The results of stress and a pessimistic outlook on the human body are well documented. Impaired immunity, increased risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases; prolonged stress literally kills brain cells. Stress also impacts our professional and personal relationships and overall quality of life.
The positive thinker is healthier, happier and lives longer
So how can we combat negative thinking?
One effective solution, offered by Shawn Achor, is ‘Three Good Things’: My phone alarm goes off at 7:15pm every evening and this is my cue to remember three good things that happened during the day. This habit trains my brain to scan for good news, rather than threats. If my family are present, we take turns at the dinner table to recite three good things. In a similar vein, at work, we start every team meeting asking each person for one piece of good news. Creating this cycle of positivity really does shift the mood, and gets the meeting off to a great start.
The reason employees often complain about feeling criticised is because their manager is unconsciously scanning for threats, looking for deficiencies and perceived shortcomings, instead of praising good work. My phone alarm comes in handy here as well – at 12pm everyday it tells me to ‘compliment someone’. Again, this creates a new habit, making not only the other person happy, but also creating positivity in me.
Being positive will strengthen your resilience to setbacks and enable you to achieve where others struggle. The good news is that it is entirely possible to switch your mindset – even if you’re currently buried deep-within negativity.
So who IS the smartest person in the room?
There is an excellent leadership lesson from the Victorian era, the story of when Winston Churchill’s Mother (Jennie Jerome) dined with rival British Prime Ministers, Gladstone and Disraeli, a week before the election. She compared them thus:
“When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England”.
These two leaders went down in history, but as Jennie summarised with very contrasting personalities.
During their dinner Disraeli wanted to know everything about Jennie, steering the conversation toward her, asking her questions and listening intently to her responses. Naturally, she talked – we always feel good talking about ourselves!
Not surprisingly, Disraeli, the person who mastered the art of making other people feel important, won the election.
Research has established that leaders with a growth mindset (like Disraeli), or ‘multipliers’, get double the productivity out of their people compared with leaders with a fixed mindset (‘diminishers’), such as Gladstone.
Why is this?
In essence, multipliers foster an environment that shines the spotlight on their people, whereas diminishers prefer to shine the spotlight on themselves. A multiplier sees his or her job as developing the capability and intelligence of others, whereas a diminisher has to be seen as the smartest person in the room and their job is to control, manage and organise others.
Diminishers see intelligence as something fundamental about a person that can’t change much, which is consistent with psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of fixed mindset. The diminisher’s logic is ‘if they don’t get it now, they never will so I’ll need to keep doing the thinking for everyone’. In a diminisher’s world there are very few people worth listening to!
‘Make ‘I don’t know’ a strategic part of your leadership. Uncertainty is here to stay. Acknowledging it is a show of strength.’
So what are the lessons for business leaders?
Researcher Liz Wiseman summarises it succinctly:
‘Most diminishers have grown up praised for their personal intelligence and have moved up the management ranks. When they become ‘the boss’ they assume it’s their job to be the smartest and to manage a set of ‘subordinates’.’
Three behaviours Liz identifies that distinguish multipliers from diminishers are:
A multiplier removes fear and creates a safe environment: multipliers invite debate and encourage people to do their best thinking. Multipliers demand people’s best effort; and they get it!
Diminishers create a judgemental environment that has an inhibiting effect on people’s willingness to contribute to debate, resulting in sloppy thinking, poor decision-making and debased productivity. Diminishers demand people’s best effort, but they don’t get it.
A multiplier creates opportunity and sets challenges, encouraging individuals and teams to achieve stretch-targets. They generate confidence and self-belief in others and a desire to succeed, to push their boundaries. A multiplier does not have to have all the answers. In the words of management guru Tom Peters, ‘Make ‘I don’t know’ a strategic part of your leadership. Uncertainty is here to stay. Acknowledging it is a show of strength.’
By contrast, a diminisher has all the answers, is highly vocal about their opinions, gives directives and loves to showcase their knowledge and intelligence.
A multiplier is an investor. A multiplier will coach their people and hold them accountable to deliver the goods, allowing them to fail and learn their lessons on the way.
A diminisher micromanages their staff, whimsically jumping in and out of the detail and punishing failure. The diminisher delivers results through their own personal involvement, whereas the multiplier gives others ownership for results and invests in and celebrates their success.
Diminisher organisation case study
Enron, the infamous American energy company, was a classic diminisher organisation: it created a culture that worshipped, and paid money for, big talent, making their ‘stars’ constantly feel the need to prove their greatness. They were more concerned about maintaining their image than addressing problems and poor decisions and ultimately, decided it was better to lie and cover up than admit they were wrong. When Enron went bankrupt in December 2001, many of its executives were indicted and imprisoned, including CEO Jeff Skilling.
Much of the cause of the most recent financial meltdown can be attributed to a diminisher- and fixed mindset organisational culture. Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker spells out the problem with the fixed mindset: ‘When people live in an environment that esteems them for their innate talent, they have grave difficulty when their image is threatened. They will not take the remedial course’.
In practice, there is a continuum between a multiplier and a diminisher
Where would you position your leadership on that scale? What practices could you undertake to make yourself more of a multiplier?
Could you be using neuroscience to boost your sales?
Most sales people sell to the thinking brain, focusing their pitch around facts and information like technical specifications, product features, credentials, pricing, etc. Yet neuroscience research shows that the non-conscious part of our brain is the real decision-maker – we make decisions emotionally, then justify them rationally.
The problem is that our non-conscious brain is not equipped for cognitive thinking: while we’re pitching to the thinking brain, the emotional brain disengages. So how can we engage the part of the brain involved in buying-decisions?
Paint them a picture
The emotional brain is not inherently designed to process words. It evolved about 300 million years ago whereas language is only 40,000 years old. Also the optic nerve processes information 40 times faster than the auditory nerve. Incredibly 70% of the brain is used for visual processing. So lose all those text-heavy PowerPoint presentations – use pictures instead. The brain gets confused if it has to read text and listen to you talking. Watch any of the best TED talks, there’s not a bullet-point in sight. Instead they use evocative photography. It’s no wonder that the trend for websites is highly graphical.
Better still, demonstrate the product, tell stories and allow your prospect to get a feel for your offering.
Neuroscience reveals we make decisions emotionally, then justify them rationally.
The brain is our survival system. It is continually non–consciously monitoring the environment, looking for change. So, in our hunter-gatherer days the appearance of a wild animal would be immediately processed as noteworthy and wake-up our brain.
The non-conscious brain therefore looks out for change, and ignores the non-remarkable. So if you begin your sales pitch with “We are one of the leading providers of sales training …”, this will largely go unnoticed. Much better to say “We are the only sales training company that applies the latest neuroscience research to boost sales performance”. This statement stands a much better chance of getting noticed. Hence the importance of communicating your niche and unique selling proposition boldly.
Stop telling, start asking
All the research shows that the best salespeople ask questions rather than tell. Skillfully crafted questions allow the client to work out for themselves how your product could help them.
The telling approach is ineffective because we all make sense of the world in very different ways. When we tell, we are operating from our viewpoint, not our client’s. What makes sense in our world may make little sense to them. We could be making all sorts of false assumptions.
In order for people to grasp new ideas, they have to create new connections and wire new “maps” into their own brains. This cannot happen through telling. It can only happen through one’s own thinking.
So, if you want to improve your sales results, stop telling clients how your product will help them, instead ask questions. This forces them to think about the issues and benefits for themselves – and research shows that this approach results in far fewer objections. People put up barriers when they think they are being sold to.
An additional benefit of this approach is that most complex sales require multiple decision-makers, so, by asking questions, you are helping your client to formulate their reasons to buy, which will help them sell your product or service internally.
The more you tell, the less you sell!
The human brain is designed to solve problems. Imagine in our hunter/gatherer days solving the problem: how do I find food during a harsh winter. This would clearly give us an evolutionary advantage. Our experience of pleasure from solving problems is the brain’s way of rewarding survival-based behaviours.
This explains why sales people are so keen to pitch their products at the slightest whiff of a customer problem – solving problems is highly satisfying because it triggers the brain’s dopamine reward system. The trouble is, it is the sales person that experiences the pleasure, not the customer. In fact it could have an adverse effect on the customer who will likely push back (perhaps for no other reason than it wasn’t their idea). It is this subconscious effect that gives rise to what is called a sales objection.
If pitching doesn’t work, what else can the eager sales person do?
The answer is to help the customer come up with the solution themselves. When someone solves their own problem they are rewarded with a release of dopamine in their brain, a neurotransmitter that creates positive emotions and satisfaction. It follows that if you are able to create positive feelings in your clients they are more likely to want to deal with you.
So instead of pitching, the best sales people devise a carefully crafted series of questions that allow clients to come up with the solution themselves. Good questioning will lead the customer to your offering. Research by Huthwaite, amongst others, shows that this approach is far more successful, and results in 65% fewer objections than traditional selling.
Solving your client’s problems may make you feel good, but helping them solve their own problems makes them feel good.
Ask more questions; speak less!
One of the hardest things for a sales person is to bite their tongue – to suppress their evolutionary instinct to offer their solution. All the research shows that pitching early in the sales cycle has little impact on the customer, whereas inhibiting your urges until the prospect has reached their own conclusion has a high impact on the customer’s likelihood to buy. It’s no wonder that the most successful sales people think of selling as ‘joint problem solving’. They listen more, ask more questions, and speak less!
Solving your client’s problems may make you feel good, but helping them solve their own problems makes them feel good. If you can make them feel good, they will naturally want to put their business with you!
Discover the latest insights from neuroscience into what makes people buy
Is it natural talent, or could you too play guitar like Jimi Hendrix?
As far back as I can remember, I fancied myself as a rock star! So when I turned 13, I persuaded my reluctant parents to buy me an electric guitar. I was convinced I’d be the next Jimi Hendrix; I thought I’d be a natural. I wouldn’t need to practice much – in fact, if I had to work at it, that would mean that I wasn’t naturally talented.
As you can probably guess, I never became a rock legend. I gave up the guitar, dismayed at my lack of progress. My rock and roll dreams were consigned to the dustbin of history!
Nature or nurture?
Most of us have been brought up to believe that talent is innate, for example Mozart was born musical, Tiger Woods was born a golfer, Einstein a physicist, etc. We believe that our abilities are governed by our genes – our DNA is our destiny! Prof Carol Dweck of Stanford University labels this type of thinking a fixed mindset – either you’ve got talent or you haven’t. In my case, I clearly fell short when it came to the guitar, so there was no point trying to improve as I’d never make the grade.
By contrast, a growth mindset understands that talent and ability grow with practice, and innate ability is overrated. Research shows that a growth mindset goes hand-in-hand with high performance and happier, healthier individuals.
Managers with a growth mindset get double the productivity from their staff compared with fixed mindset managers
Dweck’s research is backed up by neuroscience findings that show that the brain actually grows and changes structure as we learn new skills. This was first discovered in 1999 at University College, London, where MRI brain scans of London taxi drivers showed that their hippocampus (the part of the brain used for spatial navigation) was much larger than in ordinary people. The longer they’d been taxi drivers, the larger their hippocampus.
There are also many well documented cases of stroke victims who have made almost complete recoveries because the brain rewires itself to reallocate the processing from the ‘dead’ part of the brain.
In the workplace, it’s been estimated that managers with a growth mindset get double the productivity from their staff compared with fixed mindset managers.
As for me, I decided to give the guitar a second chance at the age of 40. This time my mindset was definitely growth. Armed with a good teacher, the right kind of practice and mental attitude, I managed to achieve a very competent standard. Okay, I’m no Jimi Hendrix, but I am now achieving my rock and roll ambitions… and loving every minute I’m performing with my band on stage.
A word of caution – there is a continuum between a fixed and growth mindset. People can also have a growth mindset in general, but a fixed mindset in specific areas.