How Do We Really Make Decisions?

By Jim Camp

Neuroscience has made unprecedented discoveries in the last 10 years with scientific studies pointing the way to how we really make decisions. It turns out that decision making is not intellectual. It's emotional. For someone who's involved in business transactions and other types of negotiation, this is a critical piece of information that can give you an enormous advantage.

The neurologist Antonio Damasio demonstrated in scientific studies that patients with damage to the part of the prefrontal cortex that processes emotions struggle with the making of even the most simple decisions. A patient named Elliot was among the first to raise this weird possibility in Damasio's mind. Elliot had been an exemplary husband, father, and businessman. But he began to suffer severe headaches and lose track of work responsibilities. Soon his doctors discovered an orange-sized brain tumor that was pushing into his frontal lobes, and they carefully removed it, along with some damaged brain tissue. During his recovery, family and friends discovered that, though his language and intelligence were fully intact, at work he became distractible and couldn't manage his schedule. Faced with an organizational task, he'd deliberate for an entire afternoon about how to approach the problem. He could no longer reach a decision. In spite of repeatedly being shown the flaw and how to fix it, he could not. His emotions were gone and so was his ability to make decisions.

This is important in the context of negotiations because a negotiation is, after all, about making one decision after another until an agreement is reached, including an agreement to disagree and go our separate ways. How many times have you watched someone who had a no-brainer decision do exactly the wrong thing—and you just couldn't believe they did that? Decisions are 100% emotional until they are made, and then they are approved or rejected by our intellect based on knowledge, practice, training, or lack thereof.

In your next negotiation, try this. Before you go into the negotiation, try to wipe your mind clean of all emotions. I call this "blank slating." Get rid of all neediness, fear, hope, excitement, anger, or worry. If you can maintain this emotionally neutral place, you will automatically have the advantage. That's because your respected opponent is angling, fretting, manipulating, and acting from his emotions. You, on the other hand, are keeping your emotions in check and training your brain to relax and not be needy in any way.

If you can learn to blank slate, you will be better able to focus on your actions, words, thoughts, and behavior during the negotiation. It will enable you to ask the right questions, and answer in a smarter way. And you'll avoid revealing too much or inflaming your opponent's emotions. Negotiating from an emotionally neutral place plays a key role in how well you'll be able to show your opponent.

Jim Camp is the leading global expert on negotiations. Over the last 25 years, he has trained and coached over 100,000 people to negotiate better, more profitable agreements in more than 500 multinational organizations. He is the best-selling author of both, Start with No® and No: the Only System of Negotiation You Need for Work and Home.
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