US president Donald Trump wrote The Art of The Deal. But is it more of a science? © AFP/Getty Images
US president Donald Trump wrote The Art of The Deal. But is it more of a science? © AFP/Getty Images

The science of deal-making

posted by Rob Gray
14 July 2017

A good understanding of human behaviour can reap dividends during sales negotiations

Deal-making has long been thought of as a dark art. But is it more akin to a science? Mounting evidence suggests that by taking an analytical approach to assessing human behaviour, we could give ourselves an edge.

“Traditionally, sales has been thought of by many as a business of ‘gut feel’, where some have got it, and some simply don’t,” says professor Nick Lee of Warwick Business School, an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of sales and marketing. “However, there is a vast and growing knowledge of how humans make decisions and evaluate information that can be applied to the sales force; from behavioural economics to psychology, neuroscience and many other fields.”
So what happens to the brain when we haggle – are there subtle signs we can spot when someone is ready to make a deal?

Begin with a baseline
People communicate via six channels: voice (pitch, tone, pace); face; gestures; linguistic content (words chosen/emphasised); interactive style; and psychophysiological signals like sweating, flushing and excessive swallowing. To exploit these to your benefit, the challenge is to know someone well enough before the deal to take a baseline reading. And then again at the start of the deal negotiation, to get a sense of how they are feeling.

“Whenever you notice a signal from one of the six channels that doesn’t match the baseline or context – that counts as a point of interest,” explains Hazel Carter-Showell, Carter Corson managing director and a business psychologist who runs a Psychology of Selling course. “If you see at least three, within five seconds of something you say or do, then you may well have noticed something interesting. But you still shouldn’t make assumptions.” Form a theory, then test it out, she says. People can go wrong when a solitary signal is misinterpreted to mean something significant. If you see someone scratching their nose and think they are lying, that can knock your confidence – but they may just have an itchy nose.

Brain chemistry
Simply put, negotiation is wanting something from someone else. To achieve this, it is important to set the scene for mutual cooperation. If we focus too much on our own needs and position, without showing empathy for our counterpart, this will irritate. Yet although it’s easy to dismiss irritations as minor, this overlooks neuroscience. The chain reaction triggered in the brain may diminish our chances of success.  
“It’s very easy to state our own position and focus – but how does this impact on the counterpart?” says Melanie Lilley, performance and development coach at ICD and an expert in neuroscience. “In its simplest form a slight annoyance initially releases norepinephrine [a neurotransmitter] which then leads to raised cortisol [the stress hormone], which in turn, in its basic state, induces fight-or-flight state of mind. Not a promising start. However, by focusing on the other person’s needs and the common ground between negotiator/counterpart, one is able to build a positive foundation through the release of the relationship/trust hormone oxytocin.”

A lot of this is quite primal, involving our “reptilian brain”, says Tim Jenkins, director of sales and procurement consultancy WheelSpinner. This is the amygdala – the part of the brain that has no logic or language, but controls our fight or flight reaction. This has a bearing on vital deal-making emotions such as trust and rapport. Sales people are affected in the same way by their amygdala. So, put simply, if the sales person doesn’t like you, you are never going to get the best deal.

Jenkins explains how this might play out to your disadvantage. “You are meeting the sixth new potential supplier of the day; you’re tired and over the whole process, which means you are giving off a vibe that you just want the day to be over. Now, for the supplier, this might be the most important meeting of their year. They may have spent months trying to get to this moment and spent a lot of time preparing. If you don’t show them the same level of interest as the first supplier, you risk not getting the best deal because they will walk out feeling negative.”

Mind your (body) language
From a linguistic perspective, focus your language on ‘we’ and use words like ‘explore’, ‘figure out together’ – the language of co-creation and partnership. This increases oxytocin, the neurochemical of bonding and trust.

When people are transactional in their conversational style, and simply tell or ask or focus on persuading the other person on the assumption that they have the right answer, then the stress hormone cortisol can be triggered, warns Carter-Showell. People interested in buying ask future-focused questions about a vendor’s product or service. This is often a fundamental part of the procurement process, but it shows a salesperson that you can imagine working with them and buying from their organisation.

She also advises negotiators to disregard the much-quoted but also much misunderstood 1970s study of non-verbal communication by Albert Mehrabian, which attributes only 7% of the overall message to the literal content of what we say. “That is only when people don’t believe your message. In most situations, what you say does matter. Words can literally change people’s mind – and their brain chemistry,” she says.

Although Mehrabian’s work is sometimes misrepresented, he was of course correct to research and highlight the importance of non-verbal communication. It matters a lot.

Feelgood oxytocin is also released during skin-to-skin contact. This proves the value of a good handshake, which can be maintained with eye contact. One compelling reason why negotiating in person for high-value deals is essential.

WheelSpinner’s Jenkins claims “controlling buying signals” is an area almost every buyer he trains can work on. These are “the visual and oral signals that are given off that sales people leap on to take advantage in negotiation,” he continues. “From a visual perspective, the easiest way to explain a lot of these signals is to compare negotiation to dating.”

The signs that show the ‘date’ is going well are: tilting their head when you tilt yours; smiling or nodding excessively; laughing at what you are saying; pupils in their eyes opening wide. People comfortable with what they are hearing lean in. And they mirror and match body language. This mirroring and matching was shown to improve the chances of successful negotiation from 12.5% to over 67% in one study by INSEAD Business School. But be warned: using this technique blatantly and being rumbled has a high potential for embarrassment.

Face facts

Micro-expressions are very fast, and usually show. “Genuine emotion takes 750 microseconds,” says Carter-Showell. “If you have to think about your answer, it takes a second. What you ‘leak’ in that quarter of a second gap is what you really feel – your ‘tell’. That’s what poker players and dealmakers look for.”

If someone is genuinely interested in your offer, their real smile builds slowly. It is symmetrical and activates the muscles around the eyes, which get crinkly and smiley as the cheeks are pulled up. “The eye muscles involved are not under conscious control, so cannot be faked,” says Carter-Showell. Contempt, the only asymmetrical expression on the human face, signals intellectual, moral or physical superiority. You don’t want to see a raised upper lip or nose wrinkle of disgust, thin lips or narrowed eyes of annoyance, or raised brows of shock. “And emotions are universal,” she says. “Blind-from-birth athletes show joy and sadness in the same way as their sighted colleagues, despite never having seen the emotion.”

In this way, we are all deeply human. And, by understanding the science in our humanity we become better negotiators.

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