To Get What You Want in a Negotiation, Be Deferential

Showing dominance in a negotiation seems like a sure-fire way to win, but a new study challenges that notion. 

One might think that when negotiating, taking a dominant stance will result in our “winning” the negotiation. However, a new study done by the University of Southern California, led by Scott Wiltermuth, challenges that idea with a bolder and seemingly counterintuitive discovery: Sometimes it’s better to act deferential. “Dominance Complementary,” wherein one person in an interaction behaves more deferentially and one more dominantly, actually leads to greater success.

Acting deferentially doesn’t mean acting classically “submissive,” in the sense of ignoring your own wishes/desires/opinions, but rather behaving in a way that makes the dominant person feel competent, respected, and unthreatened. One can do this by asking questions and creating a conversational tone. When the dominant person feels that their ego is not under attack or being questioned, it opens up the table for dialogue.

Harvard Law School's Dan Shapiro says emotions make negotiations successful, not facts and figures.

It’s worth noting, also, that the power comes in taking the opposite strategy. If the person you are negotiating with takes a deferential stance, you should take a more dominant one. The study centered around a group where half acted deferential and half dominant, matched with a control group given no instruction on how to behave. They found that when people played opposites, they were much more successful in making meaningful negotiations.

If you are ever making a “deal” with a Donald Trump-type, it might be best to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Likewise, if you’re negotiating with Michael Cera, it might behoove you to speak louder and use larger body language. Either way, creating a more peaceful and constructive business environment benefits us all.


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