Three reasons why self esteem is relevant in negotiations

Conflict fundamentally involves a breakdown in communications; therefore, it goes without saying that psychological factors will always be at play in any negotiation. As outlined in the first post in this series, it is highly unlikely that a shift in the attitude of parties in dispute will be achieved solely through black letter rational argument. It is critical that the underlying interests and psychological factors at play are identified and addressed – it’s only then that rational discussions can take place.

Every human has a concept of self – how they see themselves. It is central to how we behave, how we view other’s behaviour and how we make decisions. The same goes for companies – each company has a brand they are crafting and a mission statement that guides corporate decision making.

If someone’s self esteem, or concept of self, is threatened or damaged, coping mechanisms (ranging from withdrawal through to litigation being run “on principle”) will kick in and rational negotiations become impossible.

When negotiating it is important to consider your opponent’s concept of self and frame your negotiations in a way that takes that self concept into account. Take these three examples:

Need for approval (or the fear of disapproval)

Most individuals and companies have a strong desire to be viewed favourably by others. Allegations littered with wounding accusations and inflammatory language will be experienced as a personal attack. The response? Usually one motivated purely by an attempt to rebuild self esteem   – A denial of the allegation and a desire to vindicate their position. Of course, this in turn is seen as criticism and an attack against the complainant.  Soon the matter spirals into a full blown dispute … defensive behaviours kick in, the amygdala is hijacked and rational decision making becomes difficult.

To avoid this situation arising, or to repair damage that has already been done,  work to remove toxic language from your communications and negotiations – saying “we are confident that the Court will find in our client’s favour” sends the same message as “Your client’s behaviour amounted to gross negligence and there can be no defence”.

Need to be heard

No doubt many of us can recall a time when we were talked over, or totally ignored, during a meeting, and the resulting frustration and feeling of belittlement.

If someone does not feel heard, the likely impact is that they will feel undervalued, ignored, misunderstood and suffer a loss of self esteem. What happens next …. Coping mechanisms are adopted to boost self esteem before any rational decision making can take place.

So, if you see any of the following behaviours …. Repetition of information or statements, raised voices, refusal to engage with any of your arguments– ask yourself, do they feel “not heard. If so, adopt strategies that will give them a voice so that they feel acknowledged and valued. Doing so will free the space for rational negotiations to take place.

Consider comments such as this …. “I have heard that you consider our client should have erected a warning sign, how do you say that would have prevented the accident”; or  even as simple as – “I see that you would like to comment on that, we will just finish this topic and then hear from you next

Need for control

Tied up with our self esteem is how we cope with uncertainty and change. Each person or corporation has varying degrees of how comfortable they are with uncertainty and change. However, once that comfort level has been reached, a sense of being out of control overrides and we can feel demeaned or fearful that someone else will gain control over us.

If, throughout a negotiation, someone feels that they have lost some, or all, control over the subject of the dispute, they may feel weak, powerless or vulnerable … what happens next? You guessed it, coping mechanisms kick in so the focus is shifted towards regaining control rather than rational decision making.

Therefore, in the lead up to negotiations, or during the course of negotiations, there is much that can be done to minimise those feelings of uncertainty and lack of control. It may be as simple as ensuring no power imbalances with attendees, providing information as to how long each stage of a negotiation may take or reassuring parties that the outcome of a negotiation will not be determined by who makes the first offer.

In the next blog post I will be looking in greater detail on the “Need to be heard” and outlining a few tools to adopt during complaint handling and negotiations generally.

Recognising and working with a party’s need to be heard is critical in all negotiations, particularly those involving high emotion and trauma. If you would like to discuss how I facilitate discussions between parties in a mediation to ensure that they are heard , subscribe at; follow us on Linkedin and email our Principal, Julie Somerville on