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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 6: Quarantine Against Infection

By Karen S. Walch, Ph.D.

Young Brutus of Julius Caesar’s court was never able to quarantine himself from the irritability and jealousy of Cassius, the Roman conspirator against Julius Caesar.  Brutus had earned “primus inter pares” (first among equals) status among his peers and could have become the first man in Rome after Caesar’s death. However, Cassius contaminated Brutus with his own intense and destructive bitterness. Brutus ultimately spiraled into a destructive emotional mindset that led to the murder of Julius Caesar (and himself).  Brutus’ story serves as a cautionary tale from classic power history:  Hopelessly unhappy and unstable people infect others with their destructive emotions.

One of the basic laws in classic power is to recognize the plight and negative emotions of others as their own.  When we succumb to others’ destructive emotions, this weakens our own power. It is strategically important to quarantine yourself from such infection.  Association with ‘infectors’ comes with a high risk because of wasted valuable time and energy as you attempt to free yourself from their negative force.  The classicists warn us to never underestimate the dangers of such infection

Social neuroscientists today now have a scientific explanation of this “brain-to-brain linkup” between negotiators and how this contagion works.  Lucky for us, psychologists and neuroscientists also have provided us in recent years with ways to regulate the potential destructive consequences of our socially wired brains.  Negotiation aspirations of increased power and social engagement with others put all parties at risk of infection from other team members or counterparts.  Many of the lab results provide us with some very practical solutions.

The neural dynamics that can infect powerful brain performance are, of course, more precisely understood today than they were in the 1st century BC.  Thanks to modern neuroscience research, negotiators can increase their own power through a better understanding of the neural bridge between negotiators and the destructive effects of negative emotional contagion in negotiations.

Even the most routine encounters in a negotiation act as a prime for the brain and prompt personal emotions, some desirable and others not.  The more emotionally linked negotiators may be with one another, the greater the mutual force.  One example of this is that the more social resonance there is between the negotiators; the more trust and mutual cooperation the negotiators tend to experience.   Conversely, social discord and anxiety between the negotiators result in less trust and difficult attempts to reach agreement. Our social interactions operate as interpersonal thermostats that continually reset key aspects of our brain function of emotions, heart rate, and immune cells

Epidemic powerlessness, depressed energy, and scarcity mentality can infect a negotiation team through these unconscious brain-to-brain bridges.  The greatest way to quarantine from the infectious nature of negative and destructive negotiators and emotions is to be aware of one’s own internal processing of these messages from others.  Observation of how pessimistically you think and feel about a negotiation and the negotiators you work with can be the first step.  Mindfulness about the impact of disturbing emotions and poisonous relationships can assist with the management of these risks to your own brain performance, physical well being and health.

Much of the research in positive psychology tends to conclude that pessimism, for example, can be a deadly and destructive emotion, but can be observed and managed through mindfulness.  One of the ways to quarantine from infectious destructive emotions is to learn optimism as a tool to achieve your negotiation goals.  Many coaches who work in both athletic or leadership development remind their clients that pessimists, for example, can train to become optimists as a way to increase their performance and accomplish their goals.

The way we think about powerlessness, unforeseen dealings, and situations that are out of our control can diminish negotiation power in both personal and professional settings.   Mild pessimism has its utility, of course.  To be held hostage, however, to its habitual grip has been found in many neuroscientist studies to destroy well being, creativity and health.

If you or any of the negotiators in your team exhibit powerlessness and victimization about the negotiation, for example, observe how you/they explain why recent events have happened.  It is a great indicator toward a better understanding of what some psychologists call “learned powerlessness”.   An optimistic explanatory style increases a sense of power, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style incites scarcity and negativity.  The way you explain events to yourself determines how powerless you are or how energized you can be when you encounter setbacks in a negotiation.

The development of resilience and optimism serve as a foundation for a well-organized negotiation preparation strategy.  Later in the 48 Laws Series, there will be further exploration of strategic and cognitive disciplines which can be enhanced by the emotional drivers of optimism.  The suggestion here is not a naïve “just think happy thoughts” for a negotiation plan!  It is, however, a central ingredient of a disciplined and purposeful negotiation framework.

Law 6 Exercise

The ABCDE exercise is one that has been used by many negotiators who have found increased satisfaction with their negotiation preparation.  If you want to lead or inspire others in your negotiation team, need to achieve an important goal, or have ‘hit the wall’ in a negotiation, these steps can be a way to quarantine yourself from destructive negative contamination.

A. Identify an adversity. This could be a missed meeting, a frown from a negotiation partner, a cost override, inattentiveness from your negotiation counterparts.  Be objective about the situation.  Record your description of what happened, not your evaluation of it.  Do not record:” it was unfair”, or “rude”.

B. Explore your beliefs. This is how you interpret the adversity.  Be sure to separate thoughts from feelings (feelings will go under ‘consequence”).  “Because they were inattentive, I just blew the most important deal of the year”, “They are or I am incompetent”.

C. Define the consequences. This represents your feelings and what you did.  Did you feel angry, anxious, guilty, and satisfied?  Write down as many feelings and actions as you can be aware of. What did you do then?  For example, “I had no energy”; “I made a plan to get even”.

D. Develop disputation skills. This is a way to manage pessimistic beliefs.  Effective disputation can make you aware of your habitual pessimistic reaction to setbacks and encourage constructive action. “I hoped to get a better response from them”. “I may have not done the best in the meeting”.  “I was not very prepared and I have been distracted myself, and I will not make a catastrophe out of this situation.  I will create a better plan.”

E. Engage in energization. When you do not withdraw or lose energy from a setback, this can help you focus and remain optimistic in order to plan for the next steps.  “I didn’t feel nearly as embarrassed or angry as I had in previous meetings.  I have been able to think about how to relax and create a fun new idea to discuss at the next meeting in order to get their attention and interest”.

Extra credit
For more resources read Learned Optimism, How to Change your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman (2006).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.

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