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5 Mental Shortcuts That Help You Keep Calm in a Negotiation

keep calm in negotiations

When it comes to having those tough negotiations, many people will focus on what they’re going to say to the other person. “This is why I’m upset. This is what I want.” However, those conversations rarely go well. Unless your counterpart is some next-level Zen monk, this kind of of opening in a conversation will just trigger defensiveness and anger. Unless your goal is to destroy the relationship, or to blow off steam by lashing out, conversing while angry will only make things worse. 

So what can you do? A lot of self-help advice tells you to “breathe” and frankly, that’s never worked for me. “Breathing” while angry, helps a little, but it’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. It doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Breathing doesn’t give me a new perspective. 

It’s not the situation that makes us angry. It’s our judgment of that situation that makes us angry. Controlling that “situation” may not be possible, but choosing how to see the situation certainly is. However, looking at a situation differently with the same set of eyes is really difficult. That’s why I use mental models, or shortcuts to see a situation from another point of view.

Most Respectful Interpretation

Our brains are prediction machines and they have a negative bias. We’re constantly sizing up events and predicting whether it will be good or bad for us. We tend to expect bad things to happen because at one time it helped us survive as a species. That human who predicted there would probably be a tiger waiting outside the cave lived another day, and the optimist who thought it’d probably be okay became a mid-morning snack.

The thing is, this negative bias wreaks havoc on many areas of our lives. We tend to assume a negative reason driving other people’s behaviors. Like in this Key and Peele skit, how one guy interprets the very worst of his friend’s texts:

The Most Respectful Interpretation mental model, is basically a fancy way of saying you give people the benefit of the doubt. Interpret other people’s behavior in the “most respectful way possible.” 

In the era of texting, emailing and social awkwardness, the Most Respectful Interpretation comes in handy, to help stop the anger before it even starts. Imagine if the Keegan Michael Key character just assumed his friend was happy to hang out?

Hanlon’s Razor

Have you gone to a cafe to meet a friend, and they were thirty minutes late? You’re busy, too. But somehow you managed to be on time. If we were to give in to that negative bias, we might interpret the situation like our friend doesn’t value our time. Grrrr. 

Hanlon’s Razor is kind of like the less famous Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanation is usually the correct one). With Hanlon’s Razor, you can hypothesize the situation in another way. Maybe your friend didn’t think about your schedule at all. Maybe they were just wrapped up in their own lives. Maybe they got a flat tire and was too wrapped up in fixing it to text you. Hanlon’s Razor is the idea to not attribute malice which can be adequately explained by thoughtlessness. 

This can help you because it’s a lot easier to have a conversation with someone who didn’t think about the impact of their thoughtlessness on you than with someone who set out to hurt you.

Fundamental Attribution Error

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” ― Marcus Aurelius

Have you ever noticed how we call crazy drivers on the road, “assholes” but when *we* drive crazy, it’s because we’re late, or we’re tired, or some other reason? This is the Fundamental Attribution Error: our tendency to judge other people’s behavior as the result of their character rather than their situation. 

In a contentious discussion, it may be tempting to chalk someone up for being angry because they’re a jerk or the upset customer as “high maintenance.” Is their behavior the result of a fundamental character flaw? Chances are, your judgement is the fundamental attribution error at work. Unless you’re talking to the 1% of the population that are indeed psychopaths, there’s a situation driving your counterparts behavior. 

It’s a lot easier to figure out the reason why someone is angry than to try to deal with an “jerk.” 

The Black and White Fallacy

These days, polarization reigns supreme. Us against them. Democrat or Republican. Moderate or Progressive. Believe in science or don’t trust science. Right or wrong… so much wrong.

Life doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, most things do not fall into neat categories of this or that. Trying to find a third or a fourth or a twentieth option helps you find opportunities to expand upon common ground. 

In the New York Times, Adam Grant wrote about a friend who won’t get a COVID vaccination. Instead of taking the approach of “I’m right, everyone needs to get a vaccine to stop the pandemic.” He decided to try to understand where his friend was coming from and instead asked “How would you stop the pandemic?” To which his friend spoke of preventative measures and better testing… and yes, possibly vaccines for some people. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

My grandfather was an engineer at Lockheed. He worked on satellites and even the first space shuttle. Everyone talked about how smart he was, to which he would always reply, “Not really.”

Was that false modesty? Knowing him, probably not. He genuinely didn’t think he was that “smart” because he had an inkling of the vastness of what he did not know.

Now think about the early days of the pandemic. A growth hacker wrote a viral article called “Evidence Over Hysteria — COVID-19.” Here is someone who knew a little about data and a little about the little we knew about the coronavirus and proclaimed himself an expert. This article used data to predict that the coronavirus could not survive the summer (of 2020) and that we shouldn’t worry all that much. This is the Dunning Kruger Effect in action. 

Named after the work of social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger Effect describes the confidence a person feels when they are at the beginning of learning something new. At first, it’s easy to see your progress, leading you to believe that you know what you are doing. But then, if you stick around long enough, you’ll start to realize you’re a long way from being an expert. Like my grandfather, you’ll become painfully aware of all the things you don’t know.

The thing is, a lot of people don’t make it that stage of “conscious incompetence” where they know they’re not very knowledgeable. A lot of people will read articles on the internet and be confident with their knowledge.

I’ve fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger Effect myself (okay, many times). Once I took a pottery class and could throw a pot instantly. “How hard could this be?” Little did I know the years of experience it takes to become a great potter, until I tried to throw a set of coffee cups. 

It’s important to know about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and to consider how it might be affecting both your perspective and your counterpart’s perspective. Maybe no one in the conversation really understands the facts, and maybe that’s cause to give the benefit of the doubt.

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