Take a minute and reflect on the situations in your life that were emotionally charged. Some brought you joy, and you want to relive those moments because they feel good. Others whip up negative reactions and trigger a whole host of associations you’d rather forget.
Negotiation is one of those words that conjures up all sorts of reactions. It triggers memories based on how well your negotiations have gone in the past.
If your knee-jerk reaction to negotiation is negative, several factors may be at play. Maybe you didn’t feel prepared for a negotiation, and when an unexpected comment came your way, you felt like a deer in headlights, frozen in place, unsure how to respond. Or maybe the person you were negotiating with was overbearing, edgy, or even rude. Or you entered the negotiation clear on what you wanted only to be stifled by a firm “No.” Perhaps that feeling of not wanting to ruffle feathers or not being powerful enough took over and caused you to doubt yourself.
Negative associations run deep. These memories aren’t just visual images you recall; they can also be felt physically.
The power of the mind-body connection
When we experience negative feelings like fear, uncertainty, or doubt, something is triggered in our brains, probably from our memories, and this sets off a series of bodily reactions. These reactions, in turn, produce chemicals within the body.
For example, when we’re in a state of fear, our bodies churn out more of the hormone cortisol, a chemical messenger that’s released directly into the bloodstream. When this state of fear is prolonged, cortisol can wreak havoc in our body’s systems, destroying our natural balance and increasing the wear and tear that can manifest in different types of illnesses.
Think back to a time when you had a bad experience in a negotiation. Now, pay attention to your current physical condition. Where do you feel the disappointment, fear, or ache from reliving that experience? Did you break out into a sweat or feel a cramp? Chances are, you’re carrying this experience with you in your body as well as in your mind. That means every time you hear the word “negotiation,” you have a negative association because you literally feel sick.
“According to Hebbian theory, introduced by the father of neuropsychology, Donald Hebb: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.'”
According to Hebbian theory, introduced by the father of neuropsychology, Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What this means for you is that your negative associations with the word negotiation are paired with physical ailments. So, when you hear that you’ll need to negotiate with someone, especially someone you find challenging, you’ll feel it physically in your body, and it won’t feel good.
This can be an overwhelming feeling, and the longer it persists, the more embedded it becomes. The memory grooves in your brain will deepen, and the neuron pairings will wire together even more tightly.
The good news? This isn’t a permanent state. You can create new neural pairings and new wiring.
This entails trying to have a better experience in your next negotiation. You might be wondering, how is that even possible, save for a miracle? Since you created that initial pairing in the first place, you have the agency to create a new one.
Here are three tips that will get you on your way to having better negotiating experiences—or, at the very least, to neutralize the negative connotations.
1. Prepare so you’ll be more in control of yourself and the negotiation’s flow.
The more informed you are about the substance of the negotiation, the better you’ll anticipate the other party’s needs and demands, and the more you can steer the negotiation.
Think through short- and long-term goals for yourself. What goals do you anticipate the other party will have? Then do a little scenario planning in which you play out the other party’s reaction to your requests and how you will respond to them.
This method isn’t foolproof, but at a minimum, it will give you the initial confidence you need to engage.
2. Create a safety net for yourself during the negotiation.
If you feel you’re losing your composure during a negotiation, if the other party is gaining ground, or if the pace is too quick, ask a question or two. This will change the flow of the negotiation and slow down its pace. It will also give you a chance to regain your composure.
An example of a catch-all question to have ready might be: “That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Can you tell me more about it?”
3. Commend yourself for putting in the effort.
It’s not easy to turn a negative association into a neutral or positive one, but it’s possible. You want to create a neural pairing of negotiation and effort. The fact that you are prepared and engaged—regardless of your performance or the outcomes—is cause for celebration.
The more you’re conscious of this pairing, the stronger it will become. Be good to yourself and celebrate the success of putting in the hard work and creating and strengthening your new neural connections.
Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Ph.D., CCS, is a global expert and educator in negotiation and communication. She’s the program director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a negotiation consultant for the United Nations, and the CEO of the consulting agency Fisher Yoshida International. Her new book, New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation, helps women of all ages make successful negotiations a reality. Learn more at bethfisheryoshida.com.
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