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Cutting a Deal, Enhanced by Science

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Some people say that life is a series of negotiations. We engage in them constantly, one after another - some high-stakes, some less weighty, some quick, some slow. No matter what form they take, negotiations drive decision and action, be they favourable or unfavourable, which evidently holds importance for us in our work and personal lives.

It’s probably fair to assume that most, if not all of us, wouldn’t say no to becoming a better negotiator. Being a better negotiator not only earns a better outcome for ourselves, but in a lot of cases, a positive outcome for all parties. Now, after years of research on the science of negotiations, key strategies have been identified that underpin a range of successful negotiations, no matter what shape they take – strategies you can employ to garner more desirable outcomes next time you’re at the table.


If we observe a minor traffic collision in the street as we’re walking down the road, we absorb a mostly objective account of what is happening. But if we’re telling someone else about the event that we witnessed later that day, we select the information that we think is most important, we highlight some features of the account and downplay others – we might even be making one of the drivers seem more blameless when in reality they both may have been equally at fault. This is the act of framing; presenting information in a way that influences others.

Framing is a powerful tactic in negotiating. When trying to persuade someone to choose a risky option over a conservative option, people are more likely to take that risk when a prospect is described as a gain, not a loss. In other words, if we said, “This option entails a 70% chance of survival”, we’ll garner far more success than if we said, “This option entails a 30% chance of loss”.

Similarly, if we want to garner buy-in and support for our new project, framing a problem in such a way that it takes place a few years from now rather than a few weeks from now results in a higher likelihood for people to get behind us – and again, especially so if our endeavour is slightly risky.


If we’re looking up flights to Chile one day, we might find that airline A’s tickets average around a particular price. We check the next day, and the day after that, and then, behold! Tickets that have been marked down 20%. Cheap, aren’t they? Well, not necessarily; they’re cheap compared to the average price for that airline, but not if we compare them to the dozens of other airlines that offer flights to Chile at an average of 40% cheaper than airline A. This is an illustration of anchoring; a bias and common human tendency to rely too heavily on or anchor to one piece of information – especially if it’s the first piece of information we’re exposed to.

While the theories behind why this happen are manifold and consensus hasn’t yet been reached, few phenomena are more easily demonstrated in practice. If we’re negotiating with someone and we move first to open the bidding with an option that’s heavily favourable for us, it’s less likely that we’ll end up losing that negotiation than if we opened with a bid that’s equally favourable for both.

But it’s not quite so simple. Recent research found that the ‘first mover advantage’ isn’t always the advantageous position. If the negotiations are opened with an offer of resources (for example, “I’ll give you my X for your Y”) it functions well, but not when opening with a request (for example, “I’m requesting your Y for my X”). If a request is warranted, this is better placed as the second move in the negotiation.


Unlike framing and anchoring, politeness shouldn’t really need much illustration; however, it’s function in negotiations may well deserve it. Recent research studying the effect of politeness in negotiations linked politeness to retention of control over a discussion. It also indicates sympathy and a concern for the other’s point of view, which promotes feelings of recognition for the other party. This not only encourages a fairer outcome, but it sustains a positive relationship with that other party and is more likely to secure more successful negotiations with that party in the future if they are to be encountered again.

Informed by years of research, the science has now clarified some key drivers behind successful negotiating. So, why not equip yourself with the techniques above and see if you have more sway over the outcomes next time you’re at the table?


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