Paying Attention in Negotiation

January 26, 2009 · Filed Under Mediation - General · Comment 

At the risk of criticism for offering hearsay upon hearsay, I would like to briefly discuss the findings of Dr. Torkell Klingberg, a neuroscientist in Stockholm as described in a review of his book “The Overflowing Brain” by reviewer, Christopher Chabris, psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

Now with all that out of the way, I turn to the subject of “active listening” as it relates to participation in mediation, and, for that matter, in any negotiation.  A common observation of and the subject of attempted correction by facilitative mediators is that the parties are poorly or not at all focussed on what the opposing party is saying in the presentation of his point of view on the case.  Instead of actively listening, the silent party may be looking at notes, observing activities on the outside of a nearby window, whispering to her client,  or just looking down in an effort to concentrate on what she is going to say when it becomes her turn.  Even when the silent party is actually listening to the speaker she may not be taking in much, or differentiating between the valid points and the erroneous.  Consider, what Dr. Klingberg’s findings show according to Dr. Chablis:

Working memory is so fugitive in part because it is encoded in the activity of brain cells. As we try to remember a new phone number, neurons in our frontal and parietal lobes are firing away. (By contrast, the long-term memory of, say, where we last parked our car is encoded in the strength and topography of connections between neurons in the occipital and temporal lobes.) Attention works the same way: Neurons increase their activity as we concentrate on an object or task, and they slow their firing when something else intervenes. It is true that the brain can accomplish many things at once (we can drink coffee and listen for a train station to be announced while we read the morning paper), but it can only pay careful attention to one at a time. Indeed, attention is so precious that it is easily depleted — even when the added task (such as talking on a cellphone) superficially seems to be completely independent of the primary one (driving a car).

If one accepts, as I have argued elsewhere (a near obvious truth) that to negotiate effectively one must understand the opposition argument as well as the opposition does, then to fail to take those steps which aid us in doing so seems irresponsible.

What are those steps?  Active listening is a time worn phrase, often not fully understood.  It means leaning in with full attention given to the speaker.  It means interjecting polite questions from time to time in a way that clarifies what is being said.  It often involves taking some brief notes which will be used later in revisiting the speaker’s points.  And when the speaker ends, being able to repeat back to him each and all of the points essential to his argument.  This conduct is not only valuable as a way to show respect and attention which one hopes will be reciprocated.  It also reflects a confidence in one’s own argument to meet and overcome that of the opponent.  Then when it becomes the listener’s turn to present, the presentation is apt to be more impressive for its demonstration that the opposition points have been duly considered and found wanting.