Getting a good read on a rival’s motives and goals is critical to success at the negotiating table.
“But seeing the situation from the counterparty’s perspective doesn’t mean giving in,” says Professor Daniel Ames, whose expertise encompasses decision-making and negotiation strategies. “It just means understanding where they’re coming from. Are they interested in seeing you walk away with a positive outcome or are they hostile to your success? What outcome do they want to achieve?”
When a counterparty’s track record shows consistent intentions and goals, assessing their perspective may be a realistic negotiation strategy. But ambiguous behavior — or any behavior from a counterparty with whom you have no experience negotiating — demands other tools. “Perspective-taking asks that people see the invisible — figuring out what is in someone else’s mind. And people often start by using themselves as a template for others,” Ames says. “It’s a form of projection: I take what I want and I like and I assume that you want and like the same things.
“When we get a hint of similarity between ourselves and someone else, we start using our own preferences and beliefs to fill in the blanks. And sometimes we overgeneralize. We find out we both like the same joke or taste in music or art or comedy and all of a sudden we think all the things we want and believe are the things the other person wants and believes.”
But if there are not enough similarities to latch onto, people tend to assume differences are greater than they are and reach for a nearby stereotype to fill in the blanks about an individual, however accurate or inaccurate that stereotype might be. “If we know someone is a woman, or is Italian or Chinese,” Ames says, “that might lead us to guess how they are going to act, what they might want.”
Most people, Ames says, probably employ both of these techniques. Seeing an opportunity to build on some of his past work, Ames and Professor Elke Weber worked with Xi Zou of London Business School to examine the different strategies people use to try to “mind read” in negotiation settings and how people switch between projection and stereotyping.
Through a series of studies, the researchers looked at if and how subjects “filled in blanks” in different negotiation scenarios.
In one study, they tested whether subjects could predict when people would project similarities or, in contrast, rely on stereotypes to judge a counterpart in a negotiation. Subjects were asked a series of questions about which jokes they found funny and which paintings they favored. Then, via computer, each was paired with a counterpart of the opposite sex and told either that they had a few things in common with their counterparts or a few differences: for example, which joke was funnier and whether they favored paintings by Klee or Kadinsky. The researchers then asked each subject to predict how their counterpart was likely act during the negotiation.
The jokes and paintings bore no relation to the negotiation at hand, but subjects took one hint of similarity as evidence of greater similarity — predicting that these supposedly similar counterparts would behave more like they themselves would in the negotiation.
Conversely, a hint of difference resulted in subjects predicting somewhat stereotypical responses from their counterparts of the opposite sex: men who negotiated with women categorized as dissimilar were more likely to judge those women as cooperative, in line with the stereotype of women as cooperative and accommodating. Women who were negotiating with men characterized as dissimilar predicted the men would be more competitive because of the stereotype that men are more competitive in negotiations and conflict.
In a variation of the experiment, the researchers had subjects go through two rounds of negotiations with the same counterparty. Subjects who, after a single round, were told they predicted the behavior of their counterparty correctly stuck with whichever strategy they had employed, whether it was stereotyping or projection. But subjects who were told that they incorrectly predicted their counterparty’s behavior were more inclined to switch tactics.
“Our research reinforces the idea that a key challenge in negotiation and conflict is understanding a counterparty’s point of view: we have multiple ways that we solve that problem and we take different shortcuts because we have to take shortcuts,” Ames says. “The shortcuts can work well for us and they can get us into trouble.” He suggests that before going into a negotiation, people be explicit about their expectations. “What do we think our counterparty intends? What do we think they are trying to do? And then here is the key question: Why do I think that? What is the basis for me thinking they are going to approach this situation the way I would? Alternately, what is the source of my employing a stereotypical judgment to fill in the blanks?”
It’s crucial to be prepared to test and overturn your own assumptions — because while stereotypes may sometimes reflect insights that help prepare in a negotiation, exaggerated or just plain wrong stereotypes hinder judgment. Likewise, assuming that superficial similarities signal deeper motivations can make for poor judgments. “If I come in thinking the other party wants price more than quality, it’s a reasonable starting assumption that I’ll want to test that over the course of the conversation and be ready for sign that I’m incorrect.”
And it pays to remember that judgment is a two-way street. “Also recognize that the person looking at you across the table may judge you as being like them, or on the basis of some stereotype,” Ames notes. “You can’t necessarily control the way they are filling in the blanks, but you can be deliberate about the signals you send.”
Daniel R. Ames is professor of management and coordinator of the Decision Making and Negotiations Cross-Disciplinary Area at Columbia Business School.
Elke Weber is the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business in the Management Division, co-director of the Center for Decision Sciences, and a senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Center for International Business at Columbia Business School.