It’s not just you; everyone is stupid.
Have you ever wrapped up a big conversation, gotten up to clear your head, and realized you forgot to discuss one of the most important things you wanted to talk about?
Have you ever said something stupid during a stressful interaction that you wish you could take back later?
How about regretting that you agreed to a particular term in a negotiation and your only justification for doing so was, “I wanted it to be done”?
Don’t worry. It’s not just you. Everyone is stupid.
Stress makes us stupid. And for most people, negotiation is stressful.
See, we’re sort of dumb in that our brains don’t differentiate very well between actual, physical threats and psychological or sociological threats.
Our bodies get us ready to fight or flee in pretty much the same way if there is a rabid dog or a rabid coworker. We know the coworker isn’t going to kill us, but the threat they present is still very real. And because it is very real, our brains behave the same way they would if we encountered something physically threatening, like a rabid dog.
Our brains, simple as they are, try to help us out.
First, our blood goes where it’s needed: our major muscle groups. The ones we’d use if we needed to run away or fight. When running or fighting you don’t need to digest food (thus why you might feel a bit sick to your stomach) or have fine motor control (those shaky or tingly hands or feet) and you don’t need to do complex math or problem solving. Your brain has enough blood and oxygen to take care of you, but not enough to do well on the SATs.
At the same time a hormone called cortisol is being dumped into your system. Cortisol is a pretty awesome hormone, really. It pumps up your blood sugar and your blood pressure and reduces your immune response. It tells the blood that’s rushing to our major muscle groups that it needs to to be efficient! Nonessential functions be damned! You need energy and you need it now! Move! Move! Move!
Only problem is that this is all happening while you’re on the telephone with your publisher while she’s explaining that your requested compensation package is being rejected.
You don’t need to run or fight! You need to think. And quite frankly, your body is fighting against you. It is stealing the blood and oxygen your brain needs to be a negotiation rock star.
Your body is naturally and instinctively making you dumb.
So what’s a negotiator to do?
Well, you can start by breathing. I know it sounds like the advice of Senator Stuart Smalley, but it’s your body’s natural combatant to the dumbs. Right now your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen. It needs that oxygen to think. So you can try really, really hard to force blood back up to your brain. Or you can breathe. Breathing tends to be easier.
Next, you can look at the notes you wrote out for yourself before you got on the phone. Those notes have your goal written neatly at the top of the page. This can be your goal for the conversation, the project or your larger career. Your goal’s focus should tighten as the potential stress of the conversation increases.
So, if I’m getting on the phone to talk with a client about why they aren’t rejecting the work I turned in and that they are, in fact, going to pay me per the contract, I’d want to have the goal for the conversation readily available.
If I’m getting on the phone to talk about a potential gig with a publisher I know, my career goal will be more helpful to have.
Beneath that goal I have the phrase “I want” followed by a handful of bullet points that succinctly summarize my interests. These aren’t necessarily things you want to remember to tell the other person; they are the reasons you want what you want.
So take that phone call with the client that doesn’t want to pay me. My interests might include things like “I want to get something for the 20 hours I’ve invested in project,” “I want to use the connection this client has to Super Awesome Potential Client X,” “Don’t want a reputation of not meeting commitments,” and “I want to pay my rent next week.”
Those are all things that drive my goal of wanting the work accepted and my fee paid. Some of them, like the number of hours I’ve invested in the project, are things I’d want to share with the client as I explain why the work meets the terms of our agreement. But I’d probably not share that my rent is due next week.
So why put them both on the list? Because I want visual encouragement as the conversation gets difficult and my stress level increases. I know I’m going to get stupid, so rather than fight it, my current smart self is going to help out my future stressed-and-not-so-smart self. I want to give that future self clear, easy to understand directions. This is your goal, these are your interests: rock it.
What if it’s not a phone call and you don’t have notes in front of you? Well, hopefully, right around the time you realized this was going to be a new project, you sat down and wrote your goal and interests out in an attempt to organize what you want to get out of the project, what success looks like and when you’ll know that investing any further isn’t in your best interests. Merely doing that work will help you be a better negotiator under stress. You’ll have a clear mental image of why you’re doing what you’re doing and what’s at stake for you in this project.
My last piece of advice is to keep at it. Don’t shy away from negotiating. The more you do it, the less your brain will treat negotiating like a pack of wild hyenas.
You need to teach your brain to not be stressed by negotiation. The more you negotiate, the faster your brain will learn that you are not in danger, you can do this thing and you need not run away or fight to the death.
If negotiation really freaks you out right now, start small and negotiate over things you don’t care about as much or in situations where you feel safer (say, where to go to dinner tomorrow night with your partner). As you gain more confidence, challenge yourself and tackle harder problems.
You can train yourself to negotiate well, and to kick your stress response in the pants. But to do that, you have to keep at it, even when you’d rather run and hide.