March 14, 2024

Communication: Persuasion and Negotiation

Neon sign of handshake

When we communicate, we are usually trying to do more than just pass on information. We may want our counterpart to agree with us, or we might want to persuade them of a different view or negotiate something. Because we have a stake in the outcome of these conversations, we find them uncomfortable. This can make us feel defensive, which in turn can make the exchange unproductive. However, it does not need to be.

In this article, we look at why we experience discomfort when we are engaged in persuasion and negotiation, and we present some tools which can help manage these situations.

Why are persuasion and negotiation so difficult?

We like to think we are competent and rational speakers and listeners but, in reality, we struggle to keep emotions out of conversations. We typically see things from our own perspective, and so we are surprised when what seems like a rational argument doesn’t succeed in bringing someone round to our point of view. To make matters worse, when someone is invested in what is being discussed, concessions feel like a loss and there are few behavioural biases more forceful than loss aversion. We do not want to feel like we lose ground in a discussion or to lose face by changing our stance. This means persuasion is seldom accomplished by presenting arguments in favour of an idea and letting the conclusion draw itself.

This is further complicated by the fact that, by definition, persuasion means an agreement has not yet been reached, so it places the conversation on a potential conflict footing. This can be perceived as a threat, even over the most trivial matters, which triggers our fight, flight or freeze response. This changes the way we think and suppresses our rational, analytical thought processes in favour of a more reactive and emotive approach, which exposes us to behavioural biases. These biases hinder our ability to make effective decisions and to guide the conversation.

How can we get our point across without a fight?

There is a lot of commentary about persuasion and negotiation, however it is often confusing at best and in some cases conflicting. The one aspect which is generally agreed upon and well validated is the importance of understanding the world of the other person.

In situations where we need to negotiate or persuade, it is imperative to understand our counterpart’s perspective. We are already persuaded, so we need to enter the other’s world and figure out what matters to them. We want them to move towards our position on their own terms, rather than trying to drag them there kicking and screaming.

Putting ourselves in the shoes of the listener allows us to pay attention to the other person’s needs and wants and make the proposal seem attractive to them; only then will they really pay attention and see the value of a proposition.

To effectively negotiate, persuasion should no longer be our top priority. The overriding focus should be to find out as much information as possible about the other person so we can tailor the conversation to them. This not only makes the other party feel “listened to”, it also takes pressure off us, as our job becomes to ask questions rather than force answers. Questions starting with “how” and “why” are best for this purpose. They are “open” questions which elicit longer and more informative answers, rather than “what”, “when” and “where”, which can often be answered with one word. Once we understand our counterpart’s perspective, it is important to acknowledge it to make them feel comfortable.

The next step is to tackle any barriers to agreement. Reasons to disagree tend to elicit stronger emotions than reasons to agree but bringing them into the open and giving them a label has the effect of normalising them.

A lot of negotiation advice talks about getting to “yes”, but this is often counterproductive. “Yes” can be a diversion tactic aimed at avoiding the real issue. We should not be afraid of hearing the word “no”. It forces the other person to take ownership of the process. When a negotiation seems to be failing, try a question which elicits the answer “no”, such as asking the counterpart if they are happy to end the conversation without finding a solution. Replying “yes” will make them take responsibility for the failure to agree; they will find it easier to reply “no”, opening the way to a compromise.

Displaying competence and vulnerability are also powerful tools. These are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are complementary. Being unafraid to share what we don’t know lends credibility to the things we claim to understand, giving us a greater air of authority. Furthermore, when we then ask our conversation partner to help us in another area, they become invested in the idea themselves, it makes them feel that your idea is partly theirs. Giving them ownership and a sense of agency in an idea goes a long way in securing their support.

Finally, it is important to pay attention to the image we project. Our tone of voice and body language are hugely influential. Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule showed that 38% of sentiment formed in an experiment came from tone of voice and 55% from facial expression. Only 7% resulted from the words used. Our tone and body language should signal warmth and trustworthiness which aids rapport, even if the verbal message is tough.


Of course, these tools cannot magically convince someone that a bad idea is a good one. A discussion still requires some preparatory work, such as researching the facts supporting our argument. However, because we are not always the rational analysts we are supposed to be, a consistent argument is useless if it is not delivered in a way that appeals to the listener. The tools provided in this article will help to give a well thought through idea the best chance of landing as intended to have the greatest possible impact.

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