The Advantages of Open-Minded Negotiations

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a little book about power struggles. Unfortunately, conflict has steadily escalated since then. Today, as we head into a new year after two years of a pandemic, I offer some tips on approaching negotiations with an open mindset, which has been shown to be more productive, mutually uplifting, and results in healthier outcomes.

Talking “Over” People Results in Conflict Negotiations

Conflict negotiations are marked by a closed mindset that talks over people and seeks to win at all costs. It can be a narcissistic dance pronounced by the player’s view of interactions as a zero-sum game, in which the perception of one side’s winnings results in the other side’s losses. It is constrictive thinking, and ideas like win/win (or sharing-and-caring) are not genuinely considered as options. The negotiation-as-a-fight mentality gets reinforced through cultural conditioning and biased training. Think of large conglomerates that buy small companies and employ manipulative tactics to silence others, build a false image, and hurt people in the process. Or think of Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes, and companies whose growth was based on deception, or social media companies that employ cold algorithms no matter the effects on users. The combined deaths, physical and mental health impacts, and economic impacts of closed-mindset negotiations would be startling. Its reinforcing lack of trust is even more damaging—and may explain why conflict has been on the rise around the world. The Pew Research Center found Americans leading in conflict more than other advanced societies.

Talking “With” Someone with an Open-Mindset Results in Peaceful Negotiations

Research shows that having an open-mindset and facilitating trust while embracing genuine interest in the other person’s point of view works best. For instance, an open-mindset results in listening and increased empathy, which, in turn, help to bring a person’s defensive wall down. When trust is established, muscles relax, and people can be engaged and more present with each other. In this state, a person experiences less stress and decision-making can be made from the frontal lobe instead of the amygdala, which gets triggered in fight-or-flight situations. In addition, positively relating to someone—even just an exchanged smile with a stranger—has been shown to decrease stress chemicals while increasing feel-good neurochemicals and immune factors. Open-mindedness can become a mutually health-enhancing experience that leaves both parties physically better than they were before.

Let us apply this to the famous mediation example of the fruit tree in a person’s backyard. Imagine a hot, sunny day and the orange tree bears only one juicy orange. The problem with this particular tree is that it sits on the property line with the new next-door neighbor. The new neighbor has often been loud into the night and refuses to smile anytime you see her. The orange tree is special to you because you planted it with your children in dedication to your late mother. Now you are walking out into the backyard to grab the orange to bake your Mom’s orange-spiced cake. Upon reaching the tree, you find your grouchy neighbor plucking the last and only orange. The orange was hanging on a branch on her side of the yard. Your heart drops and then begins to pump faster as you seek to confront her and get your orange. What do you do?

Bearing an open mindset, imagine the women’s potential experiences. She could be going through a lot—maybe a divorce, an illness, or even an addiction. Who knows? What if you stopped and engaged with her with an open mind? What if you sent her positive thoughts and let go of getting the orange? After listening to her, you could then share the story of the tree and what you were going to do with the orange. In the textbook version, the two people learn that one person wanted the peel, and the other person wanted the orange juice and both people walked away happy because they both got what they wanted. The win/win scenario was a result of open-minded communication in which the first person was willing to put down their defenses and speak openly with the other.

Other Negotiation Tips

  • You do not have put up with someone else’s aggression. Instead, articulate your boundaries with dignity and respect.
  • Remember what is important and what you need and value and do not get distracted by superfluous and distracting information that does not matter. In other words, if it is the orange juice you want, don’t try to negotiate noise, lighting, and other issues in that interaction.
  • If emotions get too heavy, request consideration time. This does not mean silencing the other person. It can be as simple as sharing that there is a lot of information that needs to be considered and you need time to process.
  • If you are working with others—even if you are the main decision-maker—take the time to make it a team process by sharing that a decision cannot be made until you consult with your team. This facilitates a team to better adopt and appreciate the outcome while giving the other person time to collaborate with their team.
  • Lastly, a no is not always a no, and this may not be the last interaction you have with the person you are negotiating with. Treat them as people you may one day meet again in different contexts. This helps facilitate better relationships and better negotiation outcomes.