Why Thinking Abstractly Helps You Negotiate

Why Thinking Abstractly Helps You Negotiate


One of the central problems that people have when negotiating is that they get mired in the details of the issue without keeping track of the high-level goal that the negotiation is supposed to achieve.

The people involved in a negotiation often disagree on those details, which is why they have to be discussed in the first place, but that disagreement may mask opportunities for both parties to achieve their goals.

Step outside the details

For example, a company may focus on negotiating price and delivery dates with a supplier. By focusing just on these details, the companies may not discover that a key reason why the supplier has high shipping costs is that it has no warehousing facilities in the city where the company is located.

The company might actually be able to rent out some of its extra warehouse space to the supplier in a way that would allow both companies to get a benefit.

It’s all about how you approach negotiations

They key to finding these potentially hidden win-win situations is to learn to think about the negotiation session more abstractly.

Typically, a negotiation is framed around a specific issue and the parties lay out initial positions. The general expectation is that the parties are adversaries on most of these dimensions and so the parties are focused on trying to get as close as possible to their ideal outcome along each dimension of the negotiation.

The specific elements of any negotiation, though, are really reflections of broader goals.

Minimising payment to a supplier, for example, is an attempt to reduce costs, and is related more generally to the goal of efficient use of resources. But, it is rare for people in a negotiation to be thinking broadly about the efficient use of resources when trying to minimize price.

Consequently, they may not think about other resources (like vacant warehouse space) that may provide an avenue for an ideal negotiated settlement. The two sides cannot reach an agreement over warehouse space unless the supplier is willing to admit that a limiting factor in being able to ship quickly is that all of their warehouse sites are located far away. That discussion requires some degree of trust.

Ways to Outwit Your Competition

In order to think of negotiation more abstractly, try these techniques to give yourself distance from the issues.

1. Pretend you are on the other side

One helpful technique involves social distance. Imagine that you are advising another company about what to do in this negotiation rather than being a part of it yourself.

2. Imagine that the negotiation is taking place in the future

A second technique is to create distance in time. Imagine that — rather than being in the midst of the negotiations — the real negotiation is not set to start for several months.

3. Give yourself physical distance

A third possibility is to create physical distance. Mentally, you can do this by imagining that you are calling in to the negotiation from another city. In addition, it can be useful to call a colleague from your company who is located at a physically distant site to get insight into the negotiation.

That person’s distance physical distance from the situation may allow them to think about it more abstractly than you can.

All of these methods for creating distance are effective ways to help you think about the negotiation setting (or anything else for that matter) more abstractly.

Thinking about the negotiation more abstractly can highlight the goals at the heart of the negotiation. In order for this strategy to succeed, though, each party has to be willing to open up a little about what they hope to accomplish.

Art Markman
Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations, which brings the humanities, social, and behavioral sciences to people in business. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on human reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership. His next book, Smart Change comes out in January, 2014.