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Seeing is Believing:

– By Norm Thomas, Board Member, Rational Games

A masked man holding a razor-sharp knife approaches you slowly and with clear intent.  He points the blade, aiming to cut you deeply with a penetrating slice.  There is no stopping him.

A scary scenario, right?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

What if – instead of a murderer or assassin, the man wearing a mask turns out to be a surgeon?  The knife he wields is a scalpel, and his thoroughly benign purpose is to skillfully remove a deadly, life-threatening tumor growing within you.  The real menace isn’t the face-covered man, but rather your malignant cancer.

Context is everything.  In the negotiation world, we call it framing.

Our context at the moment is worth revisiting.  As we (hopefully) move slowly out of the forced lockdown of Covid-19, back out to our communities and into a kind of “Proviso Era”; it’s deemed okay to be out in public As Long As…  what?

  1. As long as…you stay two meters away from others

  2. As long as…you wash your hands often

  3. As long as…you shield any coughs or sneezes

  4. As long as…you cover your face

This last proviso about wearing masks has been particularly erratic.  The “experts”, each speaking from different perspectives, offer wildly conflicting advice, not all of it offered verbally.  Masks are useless, masks are essential, masks are a sign of respect, only cloth masks work, only indoors, masks are not manly, masks are a sign of disloyalty to our President…. Who is right?  What is at variance here is not so much the facts as the frame of reference from which they are put forward.  And it is human nature to prefer the frame that feels most comfortable for us.

So it is in negotiation.  We know from neuroscience that, as fairly limited creatures, we humans only ever really process a small minority of the information with which we are daily confronted.  If we are considering buying a red Honda, we will see dozens of red Hondas on the streets.  They have always been there, we were just interested.  As soon as we buy the Honda, the others “disappear”.  We see what we want to see and we believe what we see.  We make our own meaning.

Effective persuasion must take note of this.  Framing a question as a problem to be solved jointly rather than a categorical demand or as a respectful solicitation of advice rather than an accusation can work wonders in breaking deadlocks and moving hardened conflict situations forward.  Thinking bigger or “zooming in” can yield new and creative solutions and help us make the negotiation pie bigger.  And ownership of those ideas by our partners is much more likely if it is offered in a way fits their frame of reference.

There is more to say on this, the research is only beginning.

Comments and feedback welcome!


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