Using imagination to improve negotiation skills

  • improve negotiation skills by boosting imagination

A team of researchers led by Dr. Michael Schaerer from Singapore Management University conducted a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The findings propose that mentally simulating an attractive alternative (e.g. imagining that investors are lining up to buy shares in your company) can improve negotiation skills.

Having a strong alternative can be incredibly beneficial. It can act as a safety net that prevents you from accepting a bad offer. Additionally, it can serve as an ambitious reference point that can boost a negotiator’s aspirations. But what happens when you don’t have any good alternatives to fall back on? Are these people destined to do worse at the bargaining table?

This led the researchers to wonder if the same advantages can be granted to those who don’t have any other desirable offers. And based on their findings, it appears there is in fact a psychological tool that can be used in such circumstances. All a person needs to do in order to have more power in negotiations is imagine they have a good alternative offer, even if they don’t.

Holding power in negotiations

The ability to negotiate is a powerful tool. Going after what you want, while respecting others in the process can be tricky. However, a negotiation can quickly fall apart when one party realizes that they have more at stake. This often occurs when people negotiate without a backup plan. Not having an alternative to fall back on can put you at a huge disadvantage. It can lower your aspirations, feelings of confidence, and willingness to even begin negotiating.

Decades of research has shown that negotiators with strong alternatives are able to secure a more profitable agreement. Now researchers are suggesting that you don’t necessarily need to have an attractive alternative, you just need to think that you do. For example, while in the midst of negotiating a deal, you need to conjure up a mental image of others also willing to make that deal with you.

However, this may be easier said than done. Visualization can be a difficult skill to master. Not everyone can do it. Luckily, there are ways that you can improve this skill by targeting your creativity and imagination.

Try the following tactics to get into this mindset and get on the winning side of the negotiation table.

Hone your visualization skills

Visualization is a form of imagination. To many, it isn’t exactly a natural skill. Fortunately, there are visualization techniques you can use to improve your imagination and introspective creativity. Begin this exercise by averting your eyes away from a computer screen or anything with too much visual stimulation. This can be done by closing your eyes, looking at a blank wall, or fixating on a certain object about 5-10 feet in front of you. The purpose of this is to allow your mind to wander with ease.

Imagining an attractive alternative for negotiation success


(Side note: It is important to set a timer while doing this. An excessive amount of mind wandering can be unhealthy. Studies show that getting too lost in your mind has been linked to depression.)

Now, pick a person you know very well. Focus on the details of their face. Visualize them from different angles. Zoom in and out. Spin them slowly in a 360 degree fashion. Now try to change their clothes. Do the clothes fit them? Try styling their hair differently.

Once you’ve mastered the first exercise, move onto the next one. Try visualizing yourself having a conversation with a colleague. What are their verbal/non-verbal behaviors? Facial expressions? Let’s say you said something that made them upset. How would they respond? How would you?

Surround yourself with the blues

Whether you’re staring at an ocean or glancing up at the sky, looking at the color blue is an easy fix to give you an instant visual creativity boost. A study at the University of Colombia examined participants who performed a cognitive task while staring at a blue screen. They found that the color blue was correlated with enhanced creativity.

Try incorporating the color blue into your life by revamping your office decor or simply changing your screensaver to a blue image. Even better, 15 minutes before heading into a negotiation, empty your thought stream and scroll through these images. Don’t think too much about them. Just notice the different types of blue stimuli your brain is sensing.

Have a drink before bed

According to research, consuming a moderate amount of alcohol is associated with enhanced creativity. A study at the University of Illinois examined 40 intoxicated participants while completing a creative problem-solving task. Their blood alcohol content was 0.075, which is just below the legal limit. In comparison to the sober participants, they solved the task in less time and were more likely to attribute their solutions as a result of sudden insight.

low doses of alcohol can heighten visualization skills


How is this possible? Alcohol hinders your working memory which weakens your ability to focus. This can make it harder to complete an analytical based task. But the trade-off with a decrease in working memory is an increase in mind wandering. This mind wandering can in turn improve creativity which will have lasting effects into the next day. The takeaway: the night before a negotiation, have one or two drinks. Even better still, while you’re imbibing, go ahead and practice the first visualization exercise.

Unleash your sarcastic side

Research shows that sarcasm can act as a catalyst for creativity. A study performed at Harvard and Columbia business schools examined participants’ responses after expressing and receiving sarcastic remarks. Results showed that these participants – as opposed to participants who only expressed sincere remarks – displayed enhanced creativity. The researchers proposed that sarcasm promotes creativity through abstract thinking.

However, bear in mind that the most beneficial outcome was experienced when sarcasm was directed towards a trusted individual. So it might be best to try out your sarcasm on someone you know and are comfortable with. Here are a few contexts where sarcasm can be applied:

  • Respond to the obvious: For example, let’s say your friend takes forever to get ready to go to the movies, then acts surprised when all the good seats are taken. You could respond by saying, “Gee, who could have seen this coming?”
  • React to an unfortunate event: Whether you spilled coffee on your ipad or you just got a flat tire, try responding with “Great. Just what I needed”.
  • Tease a friend: For example, if your friend tries to carry too many objects at once and drops everything, you might say “nice one” before helping them pick it up.

Think like a child

Children have incredibly active imaginations. They are not burdened with the hardships of adulthood, which allows them to ponder endless possibilities. While you daydream of beating the evening traffic, they are dreaming of flying to mars and becoming president.

thinking like a child to boost creativity


A study at the University of North Dakota tested this hypothesis. They divided participants into two groups and asked them to describe how they would spend their day if school was canceled. However, one of these two groups were instructed to imagine themselves as a 7 year-old. Unsurprising, the group who imagined themselves as a child produced significantly more creative responses. Here are a few tips for getting into a childlike mindset:

  • Loosen the reins: A key trait for children is their lack of self-control. They aren’t concerned about eating too much sugar or not getting enough sleep. Obviously, having a complete lack of self control would be very counterproductive but studies show having too much self control may also be harmful to your well being. As an adult, you likely fall in the “too much self control” category. Once in a while, loosen the reins by allowing yourself to indulge in something that makes you happy, even if it’s not good for you.
  • Stop worrying about the time: Studies show that having a time scarcity mindset can have a significantly negative impact on your well-being. Ironically, the more successful you are, the more likely you are to fall into this mindset. Since most children don’t entirely understand the concept of time, they aren’t pressured by a hypothetical time limit. Try to complete a task without looking at the clock.
  • Put down your phone: The average American checks their phone 46 times per day. Whether you’re replying to emails, checking the news or trying to keep up with your boss on Slack, you’re likely inviting an abundance of stress into your life. Try to schedule “phone-free” time into your week. Allow yourself to be childish and momentarily put your responsibilities on hold.

By following these tips, you can get into a childlike mindset and as a result, improve your visualization skills.

Negotiating can have many benefits for everyone involved. It can resolve conflict, promote communication skills, and can sometimes result in a win-win situation. The ability to negotiate is incredibly important. Not having a fall-back can put you at a huge disadvantage but only if you let it. Honing your visualization skills, surrounding yourself with the color blue, drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, communicating through sarcasm, and getting into the mindset of a child are simple yet effective ways to mentally stimulate an attractive alternative. By doing so, you can take back control and work alongside the opposing party to reach an agreement that everyone can be satisfied with.

Experiment: The science behind visualization and effective negotiations

This research proposed a novel mechanism that could allow those in a disadvantaged position to perform more effectively in competitive social interactions. They hypothesized that merely thinking you have an attractive alternative can motivate you to negotiate better.

To test their hypothesis, the team ran seven studies. They consisted of participants who were either recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, pursuing a Masters of Business Administration, or enrolled in an undergraduate program. In the first study, participants were assigned the role of the recruiter or candidate. Their task was to negotiate an employment contract. The researchers hypothesized that participants who mentally simulated an attractive alternative would be likely to place more value on distributive issues (i.e. issues that two parties are completely opposed on).

Results from this experiment offered support for their hypotheses. Negotiators who engaged in mental simulation were less likely to settle on issues they wholly disagreed on.

In the second study, participants were randomly assigned to a strong alternative condition, a no alternative condition, or an imaginary alternative condition. Participants were instructed to sell a second hand CD while making the first offer. Results showed that participants in the imaginary alternative condition made higher first offers. This suggests that using your imagination can motivate you to be ambitious despite not having a real alternative to fall back on.

In the third and fourth study, participants were assigned to the same conditions as the second study. Participants then entered into a negotiation where they were instructed to sell or buy a Starbucks Logo Mug. The outcome of this experiment exhibited that negotiators who used the imaginary-alternative technique reached a better final agreement than those in the no-alternative condition. This once again suggests that imagining an attractive alternative can allow you to overcome the negative effects of not having an actual alternative.

The fifth study consisted of participants assigned to an attractive imaginary alternative condition, an unattractive imaginary alternative condition, or a no mental simulation condition. The design of this experiment was similar to the experiments during the previous two studies except cars were being sold instead of coffee mugs. The results showed that the negotiator must be thinking of an attractive alternative (as opposed to any alternative) in order to see a significant improvement in the outcome.

Much like the first study, participants were assigned the role of a recruiter or candidate in the sixth study. However, in this case the terms of the job offer had already been established. The participants task was to negotiate the signing bonus. This study revealed that negotiators did not experience benefits from mental simulation when their opponent moved first. This is likely because they were anchored by their opponent’s first offer. Additionally, benefits were not reaped if the opponent was also engaging in mental simulation.

In the final study, participants were randomly assigned the role of the buyer or seller. The experiment involved the sale of a restaurant. However, this task was designed to make it extremely difficult for the parties involved to reach an agreement. The results of this study showcased the downside of mental simulation. Negotiations involving parties who mentally simulated a better alternative were more likely to result in an impasse. Thus, thinking about a more attractive offer can cause you to be less cooperative when faced with a negative bargaining zone.

Recap and wrap-up

The unknown can be scary. Especially when you are just beginning to venture out on your own. What’s even more disheartening is not having something to fall back on if things don’t work out. Despite the numerous benefits from taking risks, most people like to play it safe. This is often the case even if it means accepting an unfair deal for fear of walking away with nothing.

Luckily, the findings from the current work posit a mental strategy that can optimize for these reservations. Mentally simulating an attractive alternative can motivate you to take risks, set higher aspirations, make more ambitious offers, help put pressure on the counterpart, and signal your worth at the bargaining table.