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Negotiation finds itself in all walks of life. Even small children know that negotiation is important as they work to secure toys and privileges from parents and other children, although sometimes they revert to brute force and temper tantrums! Adults focus on bigger ideas, and negotiate for jobs, salaries and sales. Part of your occupation likely involves some form of negotiation on a daily basis but even if it doesn’t, most people find that negotiation finds itself in their personal lives as well, if not just to secure a better deal on a mattress or a watch at the hockshop.

We soon learn that our ability to influence, persuade, and interact with others play a large role in the final outcome and within this social game are liking, trust and therefore rapport. He who can control these factors best, will secure the large piece of the pie! Negotiations can be stressful affairs because we are almost dealing with a limited resource in some respect or another and this increasing the propensity for competition. It is the element of competition that further breeds distrust and conflict. Having methods to dilute these negative elements are of vital importance.

One of the key factors in negotiations is the desire to withhold information especially as it applies to more novice deal makers. We naturally expect deception and competition in deal making and so we prepare for the worst, but in actual fact, this preconception leads us to destroy the odds of coming out of the affair on the upside. Rather, research shows that it is the sharing of information that creates cooperation, builds trust, and influence others such that they see your side and empathize with you. Ultimately this empathy is what leads to positive outcomes for both parties, within the limits of constructive possibilities for both parties, of course. When negotiating, we must still balance cooperation and information sharing within the realms of the game such that we don’t give up too much information or reveal the outer limits that we are prepared to submit as loses to our negotiating partner. But this does not mean we shouldn’t be upfront about our net positions, as there is always a possibility that both parties can find mutual benefit, but if neither party shares information, how would anyone know what is at stake?

This brings us to mirroring as an effective tool to bring negotiators quickly onto the same page without using risky or damaging dialogue. In a 2008 study by Maddux and colleagues individual negotiators in an imagined negotiation scenario where instructed to subtly mirror the actions of the other. It was found that mirroring helped them secure a better outcome and allowed them to perform better as a whole than negotiators who were instructed to focus more on their own strategy and where no mention of mirroring was given. The subjects that mirrored in this experiment created more value for themselves under the parameter of the study and that benefit did not come at the expense of their opponents. The study suggests that mirroring creates more information sharing which lead to a greater ability to bend on concessions and hence formulate more positive outcomes for each party.

In their second study, they used two groups once again. One was instructed to mirror and the other was instructed to use their own strategy. In this case however, the subjects either acted as a buyer or seller and they were negotiating the purchase of a gas station. In the scenario, which was cleverly devised, there was no overlap in the price with which the seller was willing to accept and of which the buyer was willing to pay, making the negotiation more than about price alone. Some key outside factors that played into the negotiation was that the seller was keen to leave quickly to travel caused by burnout from running the gas station, but that upon his return he would require employment from the purchaser to recover some of his expenses. This was compatible with the interests of the buyer who wanted to hire managers to run the station in the future. The deal hinged upon the desire of the seller to divulge this information and to what degree, if any, either party would drop or raise their closing price. Not surprisingly, ten of fifteen groups where buyers were instructed to mirror led to an acceptable deal, whereas only two of sixteen reached a deal where the buyer did not. They also cross referenced the level of mirroring with deal success and found that as mirroring increased, so too did deal making. As a positive side effect, trust also increased with mirroring.

It’s obvious from these studies that mirroring can have a profound positive effect on negotiations. They can open the channels of communication and release valuable information between parties resulting in creation of value, deal making and trust. When no mirroring happens, deal making suffers, but when mirroring happens both parties stand to benefit.