For years I have used the concept of the reptilian brain as it relates to behavior in the context of a negotiation. I can honest say, the participants have had a lot of fun with it as they learned valuable lessons of the negotiation craft. In fact, I had one class purchase me a 2-foot long plastic lizard to use as a visual in my future classes. However, recently I had a client that just could not understand the role that the reptilian brain plays in a negotiation, frustrating them to the point that they did not even want to use the word. Consequently, I thought there may be a need to revisit our very distinguished guest the “reptilian brain.” For those of you who have completed The Smart Negotiator!® course, this will be a refresher. For those who have just discovered our blog, this may be new material or simply putting a name to what you have already discovered as a practitioner.
First of all, what is the reptilian brain? The reptilian brain is the back part of the brain, or as some argue, our first of three brains. This brain is the most primitive of the three and concerns itself with basic functions. When the reptilian brain becomes the dominant part of the brain, it is known as the R-Complex. Manifested in behavioral characteristics, such as tribal hierarchies, group think, anxiety, fear, aggression and competition. How then does the reptilian brain affect the behavior of the negotiator?
“Riders On The Storm….”
The first way is fairly easy. Negotiation is a ritual–a dance if you will, that takes time. How much time we don’t know. There is no formula for how long a negotiation should last. There are a number of variables that contribute to the actual length of the negotiation. However, the reptile is not a very patient creature and will attempt to urge the negotiator to truncate the process every chance it gets. This anxious urge that you have felt during the course of a negotiation is produced by our ole pal the reptilian brain. Now, the source of this feeling has a face and a name. More specifically, you may find yourself in a negotiation and it has been dragging on. Then, the other party makes a concession and the reptile starts to give you advice that is not conducive to the negotiation process. This impatient little voice says: “quick hurry up! Take it before they change their mind. You don’t want to go home empty handed. Do you?” So you succumb to this reptilian urge and say “yes” accepting the offer from the other party and the reward is you are done. NOT I have completed the negotiation done but finished stick a fork in me done. Yes, life is good for all of the lizards in your head.
To combat this impatient urge, I suggest that the negotiator reject the offer on the table and step back, creating intellectual distance and slowing down the process. At this point, ask yourself, “does the deal on the table satisfy all my needs?”. If yes, then you are ready to accept and move on. However, if it does not, you need to continue the negotiation until it does. If you succumb to the lizard and accept a deal prematurely because of this urge, your final agreement will lack the quality that is typically found in deals made by fundamentally sound negotiators.
“This Is The End…”
The second way that the reptilian brain affects the behavior of a negotiator is more complex. The reptilian brain serves multiple functions. One of these unique functions is to serve as a protectorate from the ugliness of the world around us. In the context of a negotiation, there is a certain amount of stress and psychological discomfort that is ever present. Let’s face it, even in a negotiation that is going well, there is more rejection than acceptance. Rejection causes stress and is naturally present in every negotiation. Stress can also be manufactured by the other party deliberately using “strategic tactics” to transform common stress into lethal forms of psychological discomfort that become the dog whistle for the summoning of the reptile.
So, when does the lizard show up to protect us and save the day? Everyone has a threshold as to how much psychological discomfort that they can tolerate. Once you have reached your maximum level of psychological discomfort, a state of psychological imbalance occurs. Fritz Heider created the “balance theory” during the 1950’s. He argued that when the human mind gets out of psychological balance for whatever reason, it strives to re-establish stasis as a corrective measure. Consequently, when a negotiator has reached their personal maximum level of psychological discomfort, a state of imbalance exists and the reptilian brain is activated. The lizards are released to rescue the negotiator and attempt to create stasis at any cost. Since the reptile is primitive, the solutions offered are not very complex, but can be very damaging to the negotiation. The lizard will focus on the source or root cause of the psychological discomfort and provide solutions that offer immediate relief. In the context of a negotiation, it is usually the other party across the table that has caused the imbalance, for a variety of reasons. Consequently, the reptile’s advice is typically appeasement: “do you want this guy to go away?” “then give it to him and the problem will be resolved”. Yielding to create stasis or caving is the quickest and easiest way to reach agreement. However, it can have a very devastating effect on the final outcome.
On a personal level, the negotiator may have an IQ of 196 and 30 years of experience and none of this will matter, because these assets reside in the neo-cortex of the brain. When the reptilian brain becomes the dominant part of the brain it serves as a gate keeper and the items in the neo-cortex can’t be accessed, because the reptilian brain is busy protecting you. As a negotiator, when you are in a state of acute psychological discomfort, the most primitive part of the brain is now in the command chair and good things are not going to happen to you.
“People Are Strange…”
The type of negotiators who are the most susceptible to reptilian behavior are ones who are a bit on the introverted side or have a low tolerance for psychological discomfort. More specifically, if you have completed the Meyers Briggs psychological profile, it would be individuals who are designated as an “I”. Consequently, when an offer is placed on the table, this type of negotiator does not evaluate the offer on its merit, but rather on how much psychological discomfort it is going to cause them, personally, to accept or reject it. This is simply the wrong criteria. In this case, the other party has managed to shift the focus of the negotiation from the particulars of the deal to the personal well being of the other negotiator. When this situation occurs, as we say in the business, “game over.”
Other negotiators are also affected by the lizard. Negotiators possessing a type-A personality are also susceptible to the R-Complex. However, it affects them differently. The type-A negotiator is hyper- competitive and has a tendency to privilege winning over the quality of the deal. When the level of psychological discomfort rises in a type-A negotiator, the lizard does not use appeasement to establish stasis as with the introverts. Instead, the lizard feeds the beast and promotes aggression to destroy the negotiator across the table that is denying you your bounty. When the frustration of not getting what you want from such an inferior party reaches critical mass, the lizard is activated to restore stasis. The guidance from the reptilian brain is clear: “you want this guy to go away? Crush him!” Anger, threats, yelling, profanity, physically pounding a shoe or fist on the table is typical behavior of a type-A negotiator with the lizard at the wheel. This may be fun and even exciting momentarily. However, this behavior will not produce a quality deal on a consistent basis. If the other party realizes that you have voluntarily taken your eye off of the prize to engage in histrionics as a strategy you risk becoming their entertainment for the day. Again as we say in the business, “game over.”
“Break On Through…”
Now that we have explained what the reptilian brain is, who it affects and how it can interfere with the negotiation process, we need to address corrective measures. First of all, know the difference between general garden variety stress and psychological discomfort. Once you begin to have feelings of uneasiness, this is psychological discomfort and the Lizard King has just paid you a visit. Awareness is key here. Secondly, the psychological discomfort needs to be monitored. How strong is it? How much more can I take and still function as a professional negotiator? Is that Mr. Mojo Risin making a house call? Thirdly, on a personal level, know where your limit is. If you miscalculate and the lizard assumes command, the effect on the negotiation can be disastrous. In the distance you can hear the lizard king singing his favorite song: “This is the end my only friend the end of our elaborate plans the end.” Lastly, manage it. When you feel like the psychological discomfort is increasing to the level of impairment, take corrective measures. Call a caucus to stop the negotiation and rest psychologically. This disengagement allows for the psychological discomfort to subside. Once you feel it has dissipated, you can reengage the other party in the negotiation process and continue to create a quality deal. Once you have neutralized the effect of the reptilian brain on you as a negotiator through awareness and corrective measures, your chance of success has been significantly increased. The Smart Negotiator! ® learns to keep the Lizard King in his place. However, if you are unaware of the concept and misinterpret psychological discomfort as simple stress the situation will become a playground for the lizard. Let me leave you with a thought, if The Doors of perception were cleansed, the concept of the reptilian brain would be perfectly clear.
On a cultural literacy note, James Douglas Morrison from The Doors is the Lizard King. The anagram of Mr Mojo Risin is Jim Morrison.