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The Psychology of Negotiation

The Scotwork Team
What Is Negotiation

Negotiation is a tricky business. At its heart, this is a discussion and the chance for two parties to come together with purpose. Negotiating involves many subtle skills, even in a purely professional and business setting.

Good negotiators constantly seek out new ideas and knowledge. This strategy helps them gain the upper hand in negotiations as they apply their expertise in a practical setting. The art of psychology can tell us so much about other people and can be used during the negotiation process to identify how the people across the table from you feel and what their mindset might be like.

How does the psychology of negotiation help us with a deal?

Ultimately, a negotiation features two or more groups trying to collaborate and end up on the same side.

Psychology is the study of the mind and the brain. Though there are multiple disciplines within this complex area, carrying even a little bit of knowledge that you can apply to negotiations might give you the upper hand you need.

Five areas where you could gain insights with the help of psychology include:

1. Emotions and motivations

Though it might seem like some professionals have an expert poker face, the reality is that all negotiators are driven by some motivation. Psychology can help us recognise even subtle emotional cues that can guide our approach to negotiation. Strategies such as knowing when to push harder and when to ease off are informed by someone's emotional state.

2. Rapport and trust

Negotiating experts know how to build trust and rapport, which is critical for maintaining an important long-term relationship. Knowing the key strategies for empathetic communication can be used to demonstrate personal and professional integrity and create lasting connections of importance to both parties.

3. Influence

Persuasion and an understanding of behavioural consistency can help a negotiator exert influence over the other party they work with. Just look at social media to see the power of influence in action; 82% of consumers are 'highly likely' to follow a recommendation made by a social media influencer. Who are they if not expert negotiators and salespeople?

4. Biases

Even if we like to think of ourselves as unbiased, that, unfortunately, isn't true. Knowing how to mitigate our own unconscious biases while simultaneously leveraging them against other participants is no mean feat, but it can be done. Recognise common cognitive biases such as confirmation or anchoring bias and know how to work around them.

5. Conflict resolution

Conflict can arise even in the most well-meaning of discussions. Knowing how to take charge of the situation and redirect it towards a more purposeful course of action is a must for anyone who wants to negotiate.

How do people centre their negotiation strategies?

In the BBC Inside Science podcast, Associate Professor Sunny Lee of University College London discusses negotiation with presenter Victoria Gill. Dr Lee has extensive professional knowledge of conflict resolution and negotiation. She revealed that most people try to centre their negotiation strategies around three distinct factors to try to support their arguments:


Lee suggests that people rely on their position over someone, their charisma, or the resources that they can draw on to gain the upper hand over the other side.


She also notes that we often bring in a notion of who is in the right or who is allowed to behave in a particular way as we negotiate. Often, we see a discussion into what is right — or what is fair or unfair — with one party trying to centre themselves as having more of a right to their preferred outcome than other participants in the negotiations.


Finally, Lee notes the importance of understanding the motivations and needs of each party involved in the negotiations. This is often facilitated by asking "why" questions, and is considered to be the basis of many peaceful negotiations as it demonstrates a commitment to problem-solving and the attempt to reach a compromise that suits everyone.

How can you use psychology to read the other party?

How well can you read someone else? Interpreting even the tiniest signals from others can give you an advantage in negotiations. There are many schools of thought on how to effectively read another person. Key areas to focus on include:


Active listening is one of the most important negotiation skills you can learn. Even when you are just making small talk before discussions kick off, you can still learn a lot about the other party simply by paying attention to what they say and how they say it.

This communication skill should be one that all negotiators look to learn, but it does require practice. It also complements other perceptive skills well. A good negotiator should not even begin to think about ways they can read their opponents unless they first know how to actively listen.

Read their body language

Nonverbal behaviours can give away a lot of information about a party. Though their tone might be friendly and jovial, their body language might tell a completely different story. Sometimes, we might not even realise that our body language speaks more to our true feelings than our voices do.

When trying to reach a deal, knowing some about how to read body language can help you discern how likely an outcome might be. After all, the other participants might sound open and agreeable, but their faces and postures may be very different.

Be assertive when speaking

It can be difficult, but try to avoid disclaimers when speaking. Phrases like "I might be wrong but..." or "If I understand you..." might seem like you are being polite, yet they can undermine your position. If not handled correctly, this can cause tensions as the other group tries to take advantage.

Be assertive and confident in your contributions to the discussions. Even if you are throwing something out just to see how other parties react to it, make sure you do it with confidence.

Mirror them

Mirroring is a subtle but interesting negotiation tactic which, when used correctly, sees you mirroring the body language of someone else. It can involve copying their posture, the tone of voice they are using, and potentially even their vocabulary.

Doing so creates a subconscious connection and can often help to build the sort of rapport that often leads to long-term relationships. By creating a sense of empathy, you can aim to reduce conflict and work towards a solution that satisfies both parties.

Stay calm and quiet

Staying quiet can be massively powerful. Negotiations can sometimes come with long pauses and silences as we process different proposals and wait for responses. It can be tempting to fill such silences with something — anything. But the reality is that keeping your cool and waiting for a response can be much more powerful.

It also gives you time to think. In the heat of negotiation, things can quickly speed up and you can find proposals and suggestions rapidly being fired at you. Staying quiet and deliberately carving out periods where you pause and bring discussions to a halt can be invaluable simply because they can give you time to think.

Tips for a successful negotiation

How can you bring the psychology of negotiation into a successful deal? Applying your knowledge can take practice, but it can also lead to a better outcome for all. Here are some of our tips for how you can use negotiation psychology to bring about a successful negotiation:

Focus on interests, not positions

Capitalise on mutual interests and try to pick a path that will result in a positive outcome for every party. This can create a more amicable discussion and can lead to greater collaboration between everyone.

By focusing on interests, the parties can examine the blockers that are stopping them from creating an amicable agreement. It does not matter who holds more power. Whether you represent an international conglomerate or a small family business, examining a deal through the interests of both parties rather than the power they individually hold can be a much more fruitful result.

Aim for the problem, not the people

Emotions can play a big part in negotiations, and we need to make sure that we don't let them inform or influence our decisions. While emotions can show passion and drive, they cannot be allowed to rule. When we hit a snag during negotiations, it can be easy to direct our ire towards the people involved in the discussion and not the actual problem at hand.

As with our recommendation that you focus on the interests of all parties, so should you keep negotiations focussed on the problem at the heart of the discussion and not the people who could be hindering a conclusion. Though this can be difficult to do in the face of a wall of no's, continuously steering the conversation back to what is actually causing the issue can demonstrate a keen and mature understanding of the situation.

Offer alternatives

You should go into any negotiation with a clear idea of what you want. However, you also need to make sure you have a few agreeable alternatives or a BATNA that you can fall back on or propose instead.

Refusing to deviate from a single outcome just makes you look disagreeable. Having alternatives and being willing to propose them shows that you are open to communication, professional, and interested in building a collaborative relationship.

Be objective

Negotiations are not the place to be elusive and hide desires behind layers of vague statements and actions. In your opening statement, set out what you want to see in an unemotional and neutral manner. Present yourself and any negotiating partners without bias and ensure that your emotions remain under control throughout the negotiation.

Ensure that you also aren't making assumptions about the other party. Though your preparation and research prior to your meeting might uncover certain expectations, don't take them at face value. Keep a calm mind, and be prepared to have your preconceptions potentially challenged by the other negotiators.

Unlock your potential as a negotiator

No one is asking you to become a world-renowned expert, but knowing a little about the psychology of negotiation can give you the tools you need to hold your own around the bargaining table. Understanding some of the human emotions and reactions behind negotiation allows us to construct strategies that actually lead to agreements and deals that are favourable to all.

What's more, this can also teach you something about yourself as a negotiator. Knowing a little about how you react in certain circumstances and the skills where you could use some improvement can give you the confidence to walk into any negotiation, no matter the complexity of the deal.

Let Scotwork UK help. Our team has over 45 years of experience, and our courses are designed to help you advance your skills successfully. Contact us today to find out more about how we can help your team.

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