Negotiating Happiness: Managing Peoples’ Predictably Irrational Focusing Illusions. Part 2: Negotiation Strategies and Techniques

Part 1 of this two part series, The Science of Happiness and Origins Of Focusing Illusions, is printed: here.

“A good strategy takes into account that everyone in a controversy is a little crazy and there is seldom a straight line to a resolution. The negotiator must frequently be “crazy like a fox,” side-stepping, zig-zagging, and doubling back through issues before backing into a workable agreement.”

Negotiation Strategies and Techniques

Negotiating and managing peoples’ focusing illusions necessarily require the use of strategies and techniques that match their “irrational” framing and the emotional state from which they originate. This requires more elliptical, indirect, and counterintuitive strategies than the more direct, reasoned and rational approaches generally allow.  To be sure, rational analysis and planning remain critical for effective conflict management; however, they are not sufficient alone and if over-relied upon, risk being counterproductive.  Diffuse emotional processes, such as the focusing illusion of happiness, cannot be adequately addressed merely by the clarification of the interests and needs of those immersed in managing complex issues or conflicts. As effectively presented as the most practical, sensible and reasonable option might be, it will seldom overcome the emotional investment compelled by a focusing illusion.  Despite our cultural dedication to the myth of rationality, logic and reason remain the least effective means of convincing or persuading anyone of anything—especially when they feel their happiness, however defined, is at stake.

Few people will change or abandon their ideas of happiness easily because their thinking about what they want is conflated with what they define as rational.  As Kahneman has demonstrated in his numerous studies over the decades, most intuitive thinking, typically based on familiar and easily available conventional wisdom, is inherently error prone.  However, people can be enticed to consider modifying their focusing illusions just enough so as to allow others notions of happiness to co-exist with their own. They are susceptible to being reshaped and redirected. To the extent such an illusion is a product of skewed perception and a constructed memory it can be reconstructed.

To access peoples’ focusing illusions in negotiation or mediation requires preparation and strategic planning.  The first step, however, obligates the practitioner to rethink their own working assumptions, or heuristic biases, about how people make decisions and come to agreement in difficult circumstances.  If they are assumed to be rational actors, he or she operates differently than they might if people are understood to be predictably irrational.

In preparing, a negotiator or mediator needs to re-examine his or her working assumptions about their role and thinking frame.

1. The risk of neutrality. Assuming the traditional role of an objective and neutral expert does not allow easy entry into others focusing illusions.  The idea of being a detached, expert professional became an attractive role model by association with scientific investigation and methodology, and the belief that rational thinking is the key to problem solving.   To enter another person’s emotional state, however, requires a trust level that can only come from being dynamically engaged in their reality—not just their cognitive thinking frame.  Many negotiators and mediators aspire to appear neutral and objective so as to appear unbiased.  In doing so, however, they often appear disengaged, aloof and removed, compromising their ability to establish a credible level of authenticity and trust.  The opposite of neutral is not biased; a negotiator who notes biases are unavoidable, including his or her own, can gain credibility by acknowledging their presence and being less concerned about the appearance of neutrality than the maintenance of balance in the turbulent dynamics of a conflict.

2. Examine unwitting value judgments about the nature of happiness.  Varieties of happiness can range from the simple, sublime, relational and spiritual experiences with family, friends or nature, to the material acquisition of wealth and possessions, fame, prestige, power, control and other accouterments that provide an immediate sense of security. Validating another person’s focusing illusion does not require endorsement, agreement, or becoming similarly delusional, but a negotiator does need to reflect on their own heuristic biases about their own notions of happiness and how they might influence the value judgments they attribute to others ideas of genuine happiness.

At the same time, there is a tendency to believe one’s apparent notions of happiness are close akin to personal values and effectively written in stone and non-negotiable.  Peoples’ thinking is more malleable; it is susceptible to shifts and changes over time and in response to personal circumstances and external events, and often, alternative framings.

3.  Reconsider the traditional cultural and political definitions of the terms “rational” and “irrational.”  They are often not useful descriptors of one’s own or other people’s behavior and thinking and outdated and their use constrains the creative framing of issues and practice strategies and techniques.   While peoples focusing illusions of happiness are not conscious and intentional cognitive constructs, and not accepted as products of rational thinking, they clearly have a rational purpose.   Approaches to those illusions often need to be made with strategies and techniques traditionally marginalized as non rational or irrational.

Being too beholden to traditional rational thinking can limit options.  If a person senses their emotionally based focusing illusion is being challenged directly, they are likely to resist and react emotionally by rejecting even the most sensible suggestion. To do so is irrationally rational. The trick will be to adopt a thinking frame that is instead ‘rationally irrational’—using the person’s natural and predictably irrational behavior to advantage. (Benjamin, R.D., On Becoming A Rationally Irrational Mediator/Negotiator, 2009) The definition of rational must be expanded to incorporate what has heretofore been thought of as irrational thinking.

Many of the strategies and techniques for negotiating and managing conflict have been practiced for centuries, and continue to be, notwithstanding the considerable efforts in recent decades to re-make negotiation into a reasoned and rational process.  (Benjamin, R.D.,  “The Natural History of Negotiation and Mediation:  The Evolution of Negotiative Behavior and Rituals,”  2012)  Even without the benefit of research in neuroscience and psychology,  people recognized that the origin and progression of disputes are more chaotic, non-linear, dynamic, emotional phenomena that must be understood and embraced with corresponding thinking and strategies.  

The hallmark of most disputes are the parties displays of confusion, inconsistency, bluster, positioning, theatrics, illogical thinking, and with the whole mess infused with the fear of losing some right or entitlement they deserve. That “irrationality,” not easily cured by reasoned discussion,  requires the strategic use of similarly sourced techniques, such as paradox, confusion, distraction, deception, and confrontation, that acknowledge the sources of the conflict in tone and texture.  In traditional cultures, the use of  “crazy wisdom”—shock, humor,  or  other indirect and dislocating tactics—are commonly employed.  (Nisker, Wes, Crazy Wisdom, 19  )  Folkloric trickster figures, present in virtually every human cultures’ myths, stories and literature,  relied on forms of crazy wisdom and techniques both sacred and profane in order to resolve conflicts between immovable objects and irresistible forces. (Benjamin, R.D.,  “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict:  Mediators, Tricksters and the Constructive Uses of Deception,”  in Bringing Peace Into the Room, 2004)  In more recent centuries, Communications Theory and Systems Theory have paid greater attention to the counter intuitive, paradoxical, and unintended consequences that are characteristic of  the dynamics of complex systems, be they families, teams, organizations, corporations, professions, countries, or for that matter, any human grouping.  

Negotiating focusing illusions occurs in three phases, which are not linear or sequential, require time, and include frequent loops back and forth between them throughout the process. The first phase is to engage and validate the person’s illusion;  second, to unsettle and disrupt the person’s notion of happiness;  and third, to reshape and reconstruct their illusion in a form that is more conducive to the settlement of the conflict.

The engagement phase draws from trickster stories.   Just as tricksters first transform themselves, or shape shift,  to enter the reality of their target audience, experienced negotiators and mediators exhibit behaviors similarly fashioned to connect, not just to others’ positions, but at a deeper level that validates their focusing illusions, even when they are illogical or seemingly irrational.   Sometimes intentionally, and often unwittingly, they use neuro-linquistic techniques, which employ forms of mimicry,  tracked by neuroscientists that foster that empathy and acknowledgement.  To a greater or lesser extent,  most people effect communication by approximating the other person’s verbal and nonverbal patterns—pacing and synchronizing the tension, rhythm and tone of their body motions and voice—- allowing them to connect with the others’ emotional state. Neuro-linguistic communication goes beyond just listening to words and emphasizes hearing their meaning, whether clearly articulated on or not. It is less a cognitive activity than a whole body visceral engagement.

This differs from the more cognitive “active listening” model still prevalent, actively taught and encouraged in negotiation and mediation training and practice. The focus on cognitive thinking and analysis is more compatible with rationalist working premises of conflict management and  the detached demeanor of a neutral.  The technique was first articulated in and from the work of the noted mid-Twentieth Century psychologist Carl R. Rogers.  His principles of communication and rhetoric suggested that by careful cognitive attention to dialogue disputing parties might more rationally and effectively reach common ground.  (Rogers, Carl L., “Communication:  It’s Blocking and Facilitation,”  in On Becoming A Person, 1961) The emotional processes, while not wholly ignored, are not the focus.  For a negotiator to remain on the cognitive level, focused on the problem and not the people—notwithstanding Fisher and Ury’s  suggestion in Getting to Yes (1981)—they are less likely to sufficiently engage with the underlying focusing illusions of others.

The engaging of another’s focusing illusion, entering their reality,  also allows for the use of paradoxical injunction.  A counter-intuitive technique that makes an end run around the direct, straightforward use of reasoned persuasion and logic, which all too often end in an unwinnable argument,  it focuses on a party’s emotional resistance to considering other notions.  By encouraging a party to hold to their illusion,  many are released and given permission to let go of the belief that their controlling illusion is the only one available.   For many people with terminal illnesses, for example, once they have been allowed the right to end their lives, are relieved to know they have regained sufficient control over their lives such that they need not do so. More than mere reverse psychology, however,  the negotiator must be able to convey a sense of authenticity that the happiness form chosen and being pursued is a valid one.  Once released from the need to pursue a focusing illusion quite as strenuously, a person is freed to consider modifications, or stumble over their own thinking errors. The paradoxical injunction is an excellent example of the rational use of irrational thinking.

The second phase necessitates the negotiator or mediator unsettle and disrupt the other person’s or parties notion of happiness.  By confusing and casting just enough doubt on their illusions,  a negotiator can possibly bring about a measure of reflection about their idea of happiness.  This piercing of the bubble of reality most people create for themselves in their thinking is the beginning of the process of transforming the context of the dispute.  This space allows room for alternative realities that maintain some parts of the happiness illusion to seep into their thinking.

The techniques for transforming the context can range from the use of logic to cast doubt on a person’s embedded focusing illusion, either by direct challenge to its’ realistic premises, reasoned persuasion that appeal to their self-interest, or more indirect techniques.  Often times, direct challenges are productively offset by sidestepping and avoiding direct discussion of the illusion.  Direct challenges, that are too persistent, risk becoming counterproductive arguments that result in steeling a party’s resolve to stand firm. Sometimes a negotiator does well to retreat redirect the discussion into other matters, distracting attention away from the illusion and creating the room necessary to approach it from a different angle at a more advantageous time.

Creating distractions by strategically avoidance and timing gives an opportunity for people to rethink their perspective and for creative alternatives to emerge. (Benjamin, R.D.,  “The Joy of Impasse:  The Neuroscience of “Insight” and Creative Problem Solving,”  2009)   Daniel Kahneman observed from his research that “nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” For example, studies of paraplegics and others with disabilities report a level of wellbeing comparable to others without substantial physical impairments because their focus is not on their limits, but rather on their abilities.  If a person’s focusing illusion of happiness is dwelled upon, then there is a greater likelihood of the emergence of a thinking bias. Experiences that are initially memorable and allowed to dominate become the filter through which all other subsequent activities are experienced.  Too much storytelling surrounding the focusing illusion, therefore,  minimizes the passage of time and allows the illusion to garner an undeserved  greater level of importance. Neuroscientific work confirms as well that the memory functions of the brain are, if not fragile,  most susceptible to influence. Stories told and retold are typically embellished and given an undeserved  prodigal and mythical level of meaning. Distracting attention away from such stories can help to minimize their undue influence and disrupt the person’s focusing illusion.

The final phase of negotiating happiness involves re-shaping and re-directing a party’s focusing illusion, or more precisely, how his or her notion of happiness might be realized in a somewhat different form. Sometimes those discussions are best done privately, in caucus, so that the person can more safely consider a shift in their perspective without the threat of  being obligated to change, or appearing to “compromise.”  That word, “compromise,” seemingly benign and intellectually acceptable is rational discourse, is often  emotionally jarring to many peoples emotional sense of security. Being asked to compromise is tantamount to being asked to abdicate and abandon one’s reason for living—the ultimate surrender and appeasement. Private sessions allow people the opportunity to theatrically “try on” and play out how a shift in their illusion might feel,  and how it might be effectively and credibly presented to the other party, if they were to do so.

In continuing to cycle through the stages allows the person or persons involved to stumble into an alternative concoction of what their future wellbeing might look like.  In each phase a negotiator must sense, improvise, and fashion a response that sometimes dances around the focusing illusion and at other times confronts it directly. Timing— both when an intervention or suggestion is made and the amount of time allowed for the process to take hold—is important.  Seldom will, or can, a person quickly abandon a focusing illusion.  Sometimes for the negotiation process to move forward, it must be first stalled, either by the intentional action of the mediator or negotiator, or by an external circumstance.

The negotiation process is seldom, if ever, straightforward.  While it is eminently sensible for people to negotiate their differences,  it does not fit the traditional understanding of what it means to be rational.  Game playing, theatrics, and posturing, are all a regular, if not necessary, part of the process. This is especially apparent in difficult matters where the clash of the parties focusing illusions of happiness is the sharpest and most cutting. To be effective, the negotiator has to engage, dull and disrupt the clarity of the illusion and reshape it in a more palatable form.


In their more quiet moments, many people realize there is a gap between their illusions of what will make them happy and the “on the ground” reality that surrounds them.  They are often, however, not able to admit it to others— or sometimes even to themselves— and will likely deny it if challenged.  Under the strain of conflict, people under pressure are seldom reflective as they grasp for some semblance of control and hang tenaciously to those notions that are familiar and offer comfort and security. In the squeeze, a person’s ideas of happiness, once moderately pursued, become ideas that must be urgently solidified to settle, if only in their own minds, their right and entitlement to the illusion of happiness they have imagined for themselves.  As a result, peoples’ ideas of happiness are often expressed more as ultimatums and demands for guarantees of future security than for hopes and dreams in progress.

The trick is to foment and access those quiet moments of realization each of us has wherein we realize that our happiness is not tethered to a set idea. Some shifting occurs by chance; any number of events and circumstances that can intervene to cause a re-consideration of their idea of happiness including, illness, financial setbacks, divorce, age, and natural and man-made disasters, among others.  Nudging people to re-shape their focusing illusions of happiness in order to settle conflicts with others, however, must be thought out carefully and strategically.

Mediators and negotiators, who are in the middle of this dynamic where peoples’ focusing illusions of happiness are colliding, need to be flexible and innovative in their strategies and techniques in managing conflict.   Because the operation of the ‘messy’ human brain, especially when processing perceived threats, does not follow Rational Decision Making Theory, they must learn to match how people actually make decisions, not how they might wish they would.   This means incorporating into their thinking frame, their own, and other peoples’ predictable irrationality.  In short, negotiators and mediators need to consciously and intentionally become “rationally irrational,” anticipating and using to their advantage how people tend to approach difficult choices. In addition to techniques designed to clarify issues, there may be times when creating confusion is helpful; sometimes a negotiators uncharacteristic challenge or expression of frustration can shock people to consider a different perspective.  (Benjamin, R.D., On Becoming A Rationally Irrational Mediator/Negotiator, 2009) While some might consider such strategies and the techniques manipulative, however, they can often nudge people to move toward an agreement that allows for the greater security of all concerned.

Negotiators and mediators need not forget their discipline, training and skills as conflict analysts, but they must also add to their repertoire the disposition of shamans or folkloric trickster figures.  (Benjamin, R.D.,  “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict:  The Mediator as Trickster and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” 2004)  Managing peoples conflicts requires them to use the same imperfect memories of the past and imagined visions of an ideal future that originally gave rise to peoples focusing illusions of happiness in order to re-shape them just enough so that they might be, if not wholly compatible, then at least not mutually exclusive.

Unlike any other animal specie, most every human being constructs for him or herself a notion of happiness and wellbeing for their life. Those ideas, however, are not self-fulfilling or solely within their control.  In the end, their happiness must be negotiated with others.


Copyright, November 2009, Robert D. Benjamin


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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