What Science Says about Disagreeing like an FBI-Agent

Sam Holston
Jun 17, 2020 · 5 min read

The way you disagree is probably wrong. But you can fix it.

I can’t be certain of course, I don’t know you (yet). As a general rule, the way most of us disagree and negotiate is fundamentally flawed. It runs counter to what we now know about how the brain processes disagreement from the last decade of Cognitive Science research.

How do I know?

Simple. Because I was guiltier than anyone else. I was in sales, failing miserably. And now I’m trying to change that.

From FBI negotiators to Presidents-club salespeople, the best disagreers (yes, I made this word up, so what) make a point of avoiding these common pitfalls.

You’re Wrong — and here’s why

If you’ve ever stated something like this (I’m guilty as charged), congratulations. You’ve just switched off the other sides brain.

Or at least, the part responsible for judging how confident they are in what you have to say. See.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo credit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41593-019-0549-2?proof=true1

Research from Dr Andres Kappa and colleagues at the University College London found that during a negotiation, when one side openly disagrees with the other, the posterior Medial Prefrontal Cortex shuts off. This part of your brain is responsible for scoring how confident you are about the other sides point of view.

So you can imagine if this shuts off, it’s not good. It’s a bit like you’re flicking off a light switch in their brain. Suddenly, they can’t see your point in the darkness.

Professional Negotiators in the FBI know this: they avoid open disagreement.

I’ve felt this too. When you openly disagree with someone, usually 1 of 3 things happen:

  • they look at you funny and shake their head

So, what do you do?

Simple; get to common ground.

  • We both believe that…

Research says try starting in a commonly held belief or position of agreement. If you can’t find one yet, then maybe you need to do more of this next thing.

Do you understand me?

This is what most of us think when in a negotiation situation. The other side doesn’t GET it. And so we spend the whole time trying to help them ‘get it’.

Which is a great way of butting heads against each other. I want you to try something. Take your hands and push them against each other. If the left and right push equally, what happens?

They don’t budge. Locked in a battle of the limbs. But what happens if one side relaxes and lets the other side push?

Suddenly, the conversation moves.

There are two brain reasons for this. First, sharing our opinions/argument is intrinsically rewarding in the brain. Neuroscience research has shown that when we self-disclose (share our views/opinions/thoughts), the same reward circuity that makes sex feel incredible lights up. So the other side feels good when they get to share.

The second is the need to be heard and understood, which is hardwired into how we communicate. We have a physical need to be understood. It confirms our identity, our existence, our social status… the list goes on.

Before anyone is able to listen to your side, they need to get theirs out first. Because until they say their peace, they will be mentally rehearsing it in their own head, seeking to be understood.

What I now try to do, before any rebuttals or counterarguments, is show them I understand their view better than they do. Chris Voss in his book ‘Never Split the Difference’ calls this emotional labelling. It’s summarising what they are thinking in your words, repeating back their point and how they feel to show you ‘get it’.

  • it seems like you feel X, Y and Z, because of A, B and C.

Most people go through life feeling misunderstood.

Showing the person sitting opposite to you, even for just a few minutes, that someone else gets what they are saying is incredibly powerful for moving talks forward. It lets their brain switch off defence mode. Making them open to hearing your viewpoint.

Listening first ensures you will be listened to.

Up until now, we’ve been selfless, but there is one selfish thing you can do when you professionally disagree that helps to get you in sync.

I’m not feeling it.

How do you get the other side to see your points? You let them feel it first.

We spend most of a disagreement/negotiation just trying to figure out what the other side is thinking. How they are feeling.

“Why they keep focusing on this tiny little issue that we wish they would drop because it’s obviously not important like can’t they see that it doesn’t matter it’s a single contractual clause that means nothing what is their deal?”

The problem is we are not in their head. We can’t understand why they feel a certain way. And guess what?

They can’t understand why we feel a certain way either. That’s why you should SHARE YOUR FEELINGS. It’s actually brain-friendly, let me explain.

When you share how you feel,

“I’m worried that if we take this path the project will be pushed out and then I look like an idiot for taking it on board, people will think I’m incompetent…”,

you allow the other side to see your point.

Because sharing how you feel lets them synchronise their brains to yours. It’s called neural coupling/synchronisation. And it’s found to underly successful communication.

What happens is their brain recreates the same patterns of neural activity that yours exhibits. Identical neurotransmitters are released. They recreate the same emotions and suddenly say “Ahhhhhh…. I see.” Just by sharing how you feel.

  • I’m worried that…

Chris Voss in Never Split the Difference calls this tactical empathy. I call it emotional exposure — exposing your emotions helps the picture develop for the other side.

Plus, being vulnerable builds trust. Neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak’s research around empathy, oxytocin and trust highlighted that disclosure of intimate truths about ourselves releases oxytocin and creates trust in the brain. Trusting others reciprocates being trusted.

So sharing how you feel, especially if it’s painful, can help the other side see your point.

Ok, where’s the summary?

Glad you asked, it’s right here.

  1. Try not to openly disagree, come from common ground instead (we both believe in being heard, right?)

None of these concepts are magic bullets that when fired off in your next negotiation will slay the stalemate and bring you victory. In fact, if you think about disagreements as something you win, you’ve already lost.

Because the only way to ‘win’ a disagreement is through shared understanding.

You don’t win, you both just ‘get it’.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Sam Holston

Written by

Brain-friendly writing about how your brain works. https://www.samuelholston.co/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Sam Holston

Written by

Brain-friendly writing about how your brain works. https://www.samuelholston.co/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store