This is how to overcome the irrational in a negotiation

An impossible object that cannot be built

Have you ever been in a negotiation with another party and they seemed to be totally irrational? Have you ever been in a negotiation with someone that was contentious and seemed to be illogical? Of course, you have. We all have. This can be at work, at home, and in other areas of your life. Have you ever wondered what you can do to prevent the situation, or if you are in the situation, what can you do to address the situation better? Here are some ideas to help you when find yourself in these types of situations.




As a logical, analytical type I tend to focus on the issues, the numbers, where the data leads me, and elements like this. However, working with neuroscientists I have learned that is not really how our brains are wired. We are very emotional beings. In fact, we are 98% emotional and 2% rationale. Let that sink in a second. Yes, we are truly 98% emotional and 2% rationale. Having blogged on this topic previously several times, today I take it for granted that this is well known. When I speak to leadership on various topics, I share this simple example.

How much is 2 plus 2? Of course, everyone answers mentally with the number 4. When you do that you provide a small drop of dopamine in your brain to reinforce emotionally that you knew the answer. You didn’t jump and down raise your arms over your head and go nuts with your answer like you just won the lottery, but you emotionally reinforced yourself with dopamine. That is what is meant with the statement that we are 98% emotional and 2% rationale. We like to reinforce our thoughts with dopamine.

The Greek philosopher, Plato actually argued that rational thought should override emotions. This thought process still drives much of Western culture to this day. This concept suggests that rationale thought should over ride emotion. We tend to think that emotions get in the way of very clear, logical, reality-based thinking.

We believe that emotions will get in the way and interfere with our ability to make good choices. It turns out that is not true.

 Let that sink in. Yes, being over emotional after we become angry can interfere when we lose our tempers, but emotions greatly reinforce with good working relationships. That is what we need to do. Reinforce positive affirmation, catch others doing things right, be there to help, get others resources they need, give them a chance to shine with leadership and achievement.


Amygdala versus prefrontal cortex


In a recent blog information was presented on how the amygdala at the top of our brainstem acts to protect us from harm when you are under attack. That is great if being you are being chased by a lion, but our brain reacts the same with a verbal attack as well. You produce the same chemical reaction initially. However, you have also learned that to protect for food, water, sex, and shelter. For that reason, at work you don’t ”lose it” and flood your brain with chemicals and hormones based on anger. You know that losing your cool at work may result in you being negatively perceived by others. This could be detrimental to yourself and others. Instead your prefrontal cortex kicks in, overrides the amygdala and allows you to avoid losing your cool.   


Irrationality in negotiations


In a negotiation if the other party seems to take a totally irrational position, that is the time to dig deeper and explore the reasons why. In a recent article from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiations an example is presented when the White House in 2005 proposed an increase in food aid to developing countries that a host of non-profits that were associated with food aid were against it. It turns out the proposal suggested buying more food locally and at cheaper prices. The non-profits wanted the food bought from U.S. farmers. Once that became known their interests became clear.


Steps to uncovering irrationality in negotiations


As a preventative technique develop a trusting, open, connecting relationship with the other party. If this can be done well ahead of time, all the better. If not, taking even five minutes of small talk can go a long way towards increasing the probability of success in a negotiation. By taking the time to connect with the other party with what is important to them, this can go a long way towards overcoming potential conflicts.

Listen actively with open ended questions

Listening actively means to paraphrase, summarize, ask open ended questions and empathize. Paraphrase in your own words and summarize what you believe to be the major points. Ask if this is correct. If not ask for further clarification. Open ended questions are not yes or no questions. They are questions that ask the other party to respond with a several word answer and can address a host of issues such as facts, issues, feelings and/or interests. For example:

What would you like to have happen?

What concerns do you have?

What can I do to help you?

When you hear that what do you think and how do you feel?

By asking these types of questions it may be possible to dig deeper and uncover hidden elements to further understand where the other party is coming from.

Educate judiciously working towards common interests

Once you understand more of where the other party is coming from it may be possible to work towards common interests. With the example above on food aid for developing countries could it be possible that some percentage of the food may come from U.S. farmers instead of all of the food aid being paid to local famers in the developing countries? May there be certain foods that are needed that are not grown in the developing country that U.S. farmers may supply more cheaply, at higher quality, in greater quantity and/or with some other criteria? By educating each other on the facts related to each issue and addressing underlying interests while respecting one another, it may be possible to find ways to work together to overcome what on the surface is irrational. Emotionally tying in with one another goes a long way towards a successful negotiation.




When faced with what seems to be irrational negotiators, pause. Before becoming defensive, first recognize the trigger to yourself. Center yourself and remain calm. Don’t overreact or become angry Then check your assumptions. What assumptions brought you to the conclusion that this was irrational? Become curious about the approach from the other side. Ask open ended questions. Dig deeper. Keep an open mind. If you are like me you may be quick to judgment. In an instance like this suspend judgment. I know that this can be hard. However, by suspending judgment and really listening, it may be possible to build bridges to understand each other, educate judiciously, and negotiate closure.


About the Author


Mike is a mediator, a professional speaker, and an author. Is conflict blocking your results with the IRS or others? Do you want to overcome conflicts and be more collaborative with others? You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, NSA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]