Negotiation, persuasion, and the art of influence from a neurodivergent perspective
I work in communications so I am fascinated by the art and science of negotiation. I’m also neurodivergent and find humans incredibly challenging subjects to understand.
People rarely say what they mean and the majority of information transferred in a conversation is done so via a layer of dense, overlapping, non-verbal cues.
While I can identify a whole swathe of these layers — the tense shoulders, the verbal tic, the change in tone as emotions swim under the surface of their dialogue — I really struggle to understand what each piece of information means and how I’m supposed to act on that information.
Is it important to note or something I should studiously ignore? Do they want me to react to their non-verbal cues or avoid talking about the anger, fright, or glee that’s running like a steel rod right through them?
Through painful trial and error, I have built up an entire conversational war chest, full of standard phrases, set pieces, and learned postures to put people at their ease. I offend people a great deal less than I used to and feel quietly pleased that I can charm almost anybody I meet.
This doesn’t, however, mean that I fully grasp what’s going on or feel capable of steering a conversation in the way I want it to go. For most of my life, I have focused on masking my confusion and obsessively picking over the parts of conversations that I’ve failed to understand each day.
Feeling manipulated at work and acutely aware that my lack of innate social ability was putting me at a huge disadvantage, I started to read widely about the art of negotiation and sales. It turns out that a whole bunch of business people and social scientists have a whole bunch to say.
Daniel H. Pink — To Sell Is Human
A full third of this book is dedicated to laying out the central argument: that no matter who you are or what job you do, you are engaged in the practice of selling on a daily basis. Whether that’s cajoling a child to get ready for school, asking your boss to give you the afternoon off, or convincing your friends to go to a new bar rather than your regular haunt, you are constantly practicing the art of sales.
This was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. I do these things easily, and all the time, with friends and family who I know well. Equally, with colleagues who I trust, I have no problem negotiating small things.
Why, then, is it so hard to feel in a position of power or influence in the presence of strangers, or colleagues you know very little about?
I think that, for me, it’s the struggle to filter information out. When you don’t know a person and they send all this non-verbal communication your way, it’s like an unassailable barrage. In the absence of context, I have no idea why they are sending out nervous signals, tapping their teeth, or jiggling their leg under the table. Are they lying or have they simply had too much coffee today? Should I ignore this information or act upon it?
Deliberating on what to act on in a conversational context is cognitively taxing, leaving little brain space for proactive negotiation manoeuvres.
The concept that you are always in a position to “sell” your ideas is, nevertheless, a powerful one. Thanks to Daniel H. Pink, I have started to focus more on what I want to get out of a conversation and less on all the crazy signals people are sending out. Those signals get parked now until the inevitable 4 am wake-up call of my subconscious processing.
Buoyed by the simple revelation that selling is inevitable and we do it all the time anyway, I studied George Siedel’s book closely.
George Siedel — Negotiating for Success
The main point I took away from his work was that successful negotiation follows a set process. Getting what you want out of a situation relies on you having a clear understanding of:
- What you really want
- What you won’t accept
- What your opponent really wants
- What your opponent won’t accept
The entire game of negotiation, therefore, is all about establishing what those four points are and where in the middle you might meet.
This is fantastic, I thought! There’s a formula to this thing! All it takes is preparation, clarity, and persistence.
Now, while this set play is now in my arsenal, the next book made me rethink the entire notion of ‘opponent’.
Dale Carnegie — How to Make Friends and Influence People
This is one of the most popular business books in the world for good reason.
Dale Carnegie writes about what it is to be human in a way that transcends fads or fashion. As a social species, we have an innate need to be with each other and to be understood. We need to feel that we’ve been treated fairly, and with respect. When trying to influence others, therefore, it isn’t helpful to identify them as opponents. Rather, you need to think of them as friends.
Again, this felt like a flash of inspiration. Deciding which film to watch at the cinema with your buddies is far easier than negotiating a complex business deal but they both lie on the same spectrum.
Thinking about the people on the other side of a deal from you like friends, rather than as enemies, can give you huge strength. It allows you to see the scenario from their point of view and understand better what they are seeking to gain.
This doesn’t conflict with George Siedel’s information, it actually augments it. He talks about moving away from the idea of Win: Lose negotiations and toward Win: Win scenarios. And the only way to do this is to put the work in, understand what everyone is looking for, and work towards a conclusion that benefits everyone.
This sounds surprisingly like how I already treat my friends. So… have I been capable of selling and exerting my influence all along?!
The final guy I’m going to call out is the leading social scientist in the field of persuasion.
Robert Cialdini — The Art of Influence
At 20 hours long, the audiobook of this tome took quite a while to listen through. Having spent his entire career focusing on influence research, it is unsurprising that Cialdini has a lot to say. The summary of his ideas, however, aligns with the thoughts of all the guys above.
Influencing others is a natural part of being who we are as a social species, so in effect, we are all capable of exerting our own influence. His perspective, however, is that there is a cadre of “Compliance Professionals” out there using persuasion techniques in a coercive way that doesn’t align with your best interests. These techniques are categorised as the following principles:
Click, Run — our brains are hard-wired to comply automatically under certain circumstances.
Reciprocity — people feel a strong sense of urgency to repay a debt or kindness.
Liking — if you like someone, you are far more likely to comply with them.
Social Proof — if others do it, then so will you!
Authority — automatic trust is endowed to figures of authority.
Scarcity — if what you want is in short supply you want it even more.
Commitment — if you make a commitment, you feel morally obliged to see it through.
Consistency — being seen as consistent and fair is important to everyone.
Unity — the most powerful form of influence is in-group fealty.
Each of these principles is worth looking into in more depth because once understood and put into practice, they can make you a far more persuasive individual.