For More Productive Talks, Complement Your Partner’s Style

By on / Negotiation Skills

Negotiators who adapt their behavior to the other party may reap gains.

In negotiation, we bring our unique personalities and styles to the table. A reserved, cautious person is likely to bargain differently than someone who is outgoing and proactive, for example. There is much we can do to improve our negotiation performance—such as preparing thoroughly and using proven persuasion strategies. But should we also try to adapt our negotiating style to our partner?

A new set of experiments by Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and Larissa Z. Tiedens and Margaret Neale of Stanford University suggests that the answer is sometimes yes. The researchers were interested in determining whether taking on a dominant or submissive style would help or harm negotiators. They defined dominant behaviors as verbal and nonverbal behaviors that negotiators use to influence others, whether consciously or unconsciously. Negotiators might convey dominance through expansive body postures, gesturing, speaking loudly, guiding the conversation, and expressing their preferences openly and with confidence.

By contrast, negotiators who use a submissive style can be described as cooperative and agreeable, and they influence their partners in ways that avoid direct conflict. They tend to make themselves physically compact, speak softly, use mild language, and express themselves less directly or forcefully than their more dominant counterparts. The researchers were careful to note that the submissive style they studied was more active than passivity or withdrawal.

Past research has found that negotiators who behave dominantly claim more value than their counterparts; however, their style can stand in the way of value creation if they are perceived as tough. In their experiments, Wiltermuth and his colleagues looked more closely at what happens when negotiators using complementary or similar styles, in terms of dominance and submission, get together.

A harmonious pairing

In the experiments, participants were paired off to engage in a simulated negotiation over a merger or job offer. Some participants were asked to show dominance by taking charge of the conversation, speaking loudly, using expansive postures, and so on. Those in the submission condition were instructed to treat their counterparts respectfully, make them feel competent, agree with them when possible (without sacrificing their own goals), speak softly, and maintain a compact physical space. Participants in a control group received no such instructions about their negotiating style. Negotiators were paired with partners in their same condition or a different one, and their outcomes were assessed using a point system.
Interestingly, pairs in which one party behaved dominantly and the other submissively outperformed pairs who were in the same condition (whether dominance, submission, or control). The pairs of dominant/submissive negotiators benefited from their complementary communication style. A pattern in which one person stated her preferences directly and the other asked questions enabled the negotiators to claim the most value.

We might expect that the submissive negotiators lost ground to their dominant counterparts, but that was not the case. Rather, the submissive negotiators assessed, through their questioning, how to meet their own goals. In the process, they helped their dominant counterparts feel respected and competent.

Toward a natural adaptation

Intuitively, the findings make sense. Imagine a negotiation in which both individuals are trying to dominate the discussion. Now picture one in which both are agreeably encouraging the other. Neither arrangement seems like a recipe for a winning deal, does it?

The idea of adapting our personal negotiating style to complement that of our counterpart may seem both off-putting and difficult to achieve. Behaving contrary to our instincts can feel unnatural and downright difficult to pull off. Yet consider that we often adapt to our fellow negotiators quite naturally—taking the lead when the other party seems reticent, for example, or adopting a more backseat role when someone seems determined to guide the conversation. Perhaps the lesson is not so much that we need to contort our behavior unnaturally to succeed as negotiators, but that we should be reassured rather than concerned when we find ourselves behaving out of character in an attempt to complement our partner’s style. In addition, the research highlights the fact that negotiation is a fluid, improvisatory process that requires us to think and react on the fly.

Resource: “The Benefits of Dominance Complementarity in Negotiations,” by Scott Wiltermuth, Larissa Z. Tiedens, and Margaret Neale, Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 2015.

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