Negotiation is without a doubt an art form. Negotiations can trample treaties, ruin businesses, and create chaos, or they can create peace, increase collaboration, and improve mental & physical wellbeing for people affected by them. Many leaders find themselves in positions where they must negotiate, but how many leaders actually have quality experience or training in this delicate art?

Several of today’s prominent political leaders are fond of stressing how well they negotiate and “deal” with business associates or other world leaders. While your opinion on how successful these people are may tilt one way or another, it’s clear that many leaders do not have the skills necessary to handle delicate or potentially world-wide negotiations. 

The Brain Science Behind Negotiations

Even very young children try their hand at negotiating for things, such as another hour to play or for another cookie. We expect children to play together and share toys, which requires some form of negotiation. As adults, we negotiate salaries, car loans, and business deals. So, even though you may have practice with negotiating for things you need or want, do you have the skills to negotiate at the upper echelons of business or politics?

It can be difficult to learn how to negotiate because there are so many factors involved, including emotions, knowledge and experience. It’s one thing to figure out how to divide a dinner bill and quite another to negotiate a peace treaty between adversarial nations. 

Neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look at the brains of participants who had to decide whether or not to gamble money, with a 50/50 chance of losing or winning. Several areas of the brain, including midbrain areas which release dopamine (the “reward” neurotransmitter), showed more activity as the possible amount of money to be won increased. However, potential losses decreased activity in these same regions.1

In other words, most people need to see the risk as “worth it” because loss aversion (which attempts to keep us from making bad decisions) tells our brain not to make the choice. We are more likely to want to NOT lose the money than to gain the money, if our chances are about equal. When we negotiate, the desire to come out ahead (for both sides) is often not possible, so negotiations may be unsuccessful because we don’t want to seem to “lose”. 

How To Practice Negotiations To Improve Collaborations

Fortunately, there are things we can do to become better negotiators, whether it’s bargaining for a used table or trying to land a multi-million dollar deal. Consider:

  • Being more flexible. Even though you probably have a pretty good idea of what you want to negotiate for (and what you imagine you want to concede to the other side), it’s important to be flexible. Collaboration involves having the foresight to see from the other person or party’s perspective, and that means you might have to change your plan mid-course. 
  • Being courageous. Negotiations take courage. You’re trying to politely advance your own agenda, but you don’t want to sell your side short because you don’t have the courage to ask for something more. If you have a grand vision that requires tough negotiations, have the courage to take that leap. If you don’t, who will?
  • Being aware of failure. While failure may seem like another “F” word in business, in reality, we learn from our mistakes and failures. When things go wrong, we’re forced to take another look. Taking the time to reflect on why things didn’t go the way you hoped can give you the flash of inspiration you need to try again. Our brains don’t want us to lose, but we’ll never have the chance to succeed if we’re too afraid to try.
  • Reading between the lines. Skilled negotiators hear more than words being spoken. Body language and subtle social cues can often give us a great deal of information, if only we are paying attention. Learning to pick up on these types of cues can help us make better decisions and might help close a deal.
  • Being open-minded. Even though you may never be a CEO or the ruler of a country, we still need to learn to be open-minded. Negotiations often mean we have to venture into unknown territory, and people who never deviate from the norm may struggle here. Being open-minded, positive, and ready for change can help us negotiate even through the most difficult situations.

No problem is so deep that it cannot be overcome, given the will of all parties, through discussion and negotiation rather than force and violence. 

Nelson Mandela

Creating Neuroleaders With The Skills To Negotiate

In today’s business and political climate, we are expected to collaborate with others more than ever. We can instantaneously speak and see nearly anyone in the world, but many leaders do not have the skills needed to be exemplar negotiators. 

The i4 Neuroleader Methodology can help you hone (or discover!) your negotiating skills, resulting in stronger collaborations which can directly impact your business model. You can learn about your strengths and weaknesses and how they can impact the decisions you make. These decisions may have long-reaching consequences, potentially affecting mental health and overall wellbeing for you and the people around you. 

Brain-friendly leaders are needed, especially in politics, as we must all face the issues affecting our planet (such as the changing climate, political turmoil, and disease and famine). Even though you may not aspire to be a politician, you may find yourself at the helm of an organisation that can have a positive impact, if only the leaders have the courage and will to negotiate.

1. Tom SM, Fox CR, Trepel C, et al. The neural basis of loss aversion in decision-making under risk. Science 2007; 315: 515–518.

Originally posted on: 29 October 2019
Last updated on: 18 February 2024

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Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

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