The unreliability of our gut: Intuitions in negotiation

The recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un has brought the issue of intuition in negotiation to the fore. The North Korean dictator reportedly spent years planning for such a meeting, trusting little to his gut and everything to his analysis and preparation. President Trump, in contrast, is widely known to rely on his gut, for example by saying that he would simply intuit whether a deal with Kim was possible within the first minute.

Given these two divergent approaches, each with its own appeal, it’s probably worth considering the reliability of our intuitions in negotiations. Unfortunately, I’m here to suggest that they are not very reliable at all.

In the spirit of making life (if not world events) negotiable, consider the following five ways that our intuitions can fail us. Our intuitions often tell us…

  1. To avoid making the first offer. Seems intuitive to let the other party move first. That way, we can learn about their preferences and maybe get a great deal. Right? Well, often wrong. As I’ve suggested often before, if we do that, we miss the golden opportunity to focus the other party’s attention on our own goals and desires, making us counteroffers very much in line with our own thinking. Instead, we end up making offers very much in line with theirs.
  2. To deal with one issue at a time. Seems intuitive to agree on each issue in turn, and probably the easiest first. Right? Typically wrong again. If we do that, we treat each each issue as a competitive fight, losing the opportunity to link and trade issues. Accordingly, we leave ourselves with a tremendous problem when we come to the truly contentious issues, typically at the end.
  3. That if I want something, you don’t. Seems intuitive that two negotiators want two opposite things. Right? Wrong more often than you’d think. People do want the opposite of some things, typically money or other quantitative issues. But, as I’ve suggested often before, they often want the same thing on qualitative issues—or at least care less about some qualitative issues than others, paving the way for tradeoffs. Intuition fails us again, precluding the possibility of a win-win.
  4. To focus on our bottom line. Seems intuitive to focus on our bottom line, and especially whether the deal under discussion is better than said line. Right? Wrong or at least woefully incomplete. If we focus exclusively on our bottom line, chances are that we’ll settle for something just better than that line, which is often not very good at all. Instead, we need to focus on our target, only coming back to our bottom line when we need to, at the end.
  5. That everyone negotiates pretty in much the same way. Seems intuitive that everybody around the world pretty much thinks about and approaches negotiations the same that way we do. Right? No, totally wrong. Mountains of evidence now indicate that negotiators from different cultures very markedly in their strategies, interests, and the ethical or legal standards they bring to the table. Intuition fails us again, and this time with a bang.

So you see that, appealing as our gut may be, it’s not particularly reliable in negotiations. And now that we all understand as much, maybe we can collectively convince our political leaders.

Preparing to negotiate? Use your “BRAIN”!

Most people know to prepare before a negotiation. If not, then negotiation instructors like me frequently remind them. So the problem is not a lack of awareness about the need to prepare. It’s the lack of a framework describing what to prepare. What exactly should negotiators ponder before arriving at the bargaining table?

Since knowing what to prepare is pretty much a prerequisite for preparing itself, and preparing itself a prerequisite for a negotiable life, let me suggest you use your BRAIN (via the following acronym):

  • BATNA. All good preparation starts with a consideration of alternatives—specifically a negotiator’s next-best alternative if the current negotiation fails (i.e., their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement or BATNA). Otherwise, they’ll never know how much power they have or how far to push the envelope.
  • Reservation price. Great negotiators transition directly from their BATNA to their bottom line, walk away point, reservation price. Otherwise, they don’t really have the foggiest idea whether to get to yes or get to no and go with their BATNA.
  • Aspirations. BATNAs and reservation prices are great, but negotiators who spend too much time pondering their alternatives or minimally acceptable agreements (i.e., their reservation prices) tend to get them. To get something better, great negotiators also define their goals, targets, aspirations—actively considering what they really want when their counterpart demurs.
  • Interests. The acronym might as well stop there (and consider the acronym if it did), but the preceding letters alone tend to elicit a very competitive negotiation. Great negotiators know that spending the whole time competing to attain their aspirations, clear their reservation price, or avoid their BATNA results in a competitive scramble over the crumbs of a very small pie. Instead, they know they need to identify and find creative ways of fulfilling both negotiators’ overall objectives (i.e., their interests), and thereby “grow the pie.”
  • Negotiation counterpart. So why not BRAI then? Because that makes very little sense as a word and even less sense as a preparation strategy—the latter because it completely omits the other party. Negotiators who BRAI, and most negotiators do, fail to anticipate their counterpart’s situation and thus find it immensely hard to understand or respect that situation while negotiating. So great negotiators repeat the preceding letters for their counterpart, taking a wild albeit educated guess as to their counterpart’s BATNA, reservation price, aspirations, and interests.

So the next time you sit down to prepare for a negotiation, don’t just use your mind—use your BRAIN! Doing so can’t spell the difference between a smart negotiation outcome and an outcome that everyone deems dumb.

Playing a guessing game alone: A strange but powerful negotiation strategy

In most negotiation courses, professors repeatedly ask students to complete a seemingly silly exercise: playing a guessing game alone. That is, professors require their students to read a negotiation case, then take a wild guess as to their future counterpart’s situation—in particular, the counterpart’s interests, priorities, alternatives, and bottom line.

“What’s the point?” the bolder students ask. “How would do we go about that?” the more circumspect students say. By the second or third class, though, most students fully get the point. Taking even the wildest of guesses about their counterpart’s situation, they see, is a form of perspective-taking that can make even the toughest situations negotiable.

Consider the following five reasons to play a pre-negotiation guessing game, alone:

  1. You’ll understand them better once they start talking. You wouldn’t play a real guessing game alone because you’d never know whether your guess was right. But you’ll definitely have a chance to validate your guesses about your negotiation partner, and research suggests that people who have gone through the exercise can process their counterpart’s statements more easily and rapidly once the negotiation starts—even if their initial guesses were wrong. Simply simulating another person’s thinking, it seems, prepares us to comprehend that thinking once we actually hear it.
  2. You’ll anticipate potential tradeoffs. Another reason you’d never play a real guessing game alone: you’d have no idea what you were guessing about. But you definitely know what you’re guessing about before a negotiation—all of the topics above, which often attune you to creative, win-win tradeoff opportunities. And it never fails to amaze my students (or me) how many such opportunities pop to mind even before the negotiators ever meet. Planning to ask an overworked boss for a raise? Could you offer to take over a critical task that you actually find fun in exchange for said raise? Such ideas often arise long before the negotiation begins.
  3. You’ll anticipate potential pain points. Steering clear of needless controversies and exposed nerves is often a prerequisite to a deal. Otherwise, all the creative tradeoffs in the world won’t get you to yes. Playing a guessing game often surfaces plenty of pain points. Does your overworked boss seem overly insecure about his or her own performance? Better frame your offer to take over some work as an effort to learn from the boss’s expertise.
  4. You’ll generate trust. People who play pre-negotiation guessing games tend to mention the products of those games during the negotiation itself. “I was wondering whether you’re interested in / concerned about / hoping for X?” Such statements not only open the spigot of information-sharing; they also convey your own earnest interest in the counterpart’s welfare, thereby signaling your trustworthiness.
  5. You’ll develop a healthy sense of humility. Without playing a pre-negotiation guessing game, we often think of our counterparts as automatons who reflexively seek to deny our every hope and dream. Pre-negotiation guessing games help to remind us that they’re humans too, complete with needs, wishes, and aspirations of their own. Humanization can go a long way toward a good deal (and being a good person).

Silly as a guessing game alone may seem, then, it’s well-worth my students’ time before their simulated negotiations—and yours before your real negotiations. Guess right or guess wrong, I’ll guess that you start negotiating better.