“Most of us can think of someone who is unaware of how others see them,” notes Daniel Ames, a professor of management at Columbia Business School who teaches courses in negotiation. “Sadly, often enough, this research suggests that person is us.”
To measure the self-awareness of people involved in negotiations, Ames and fellow researcher Abbie Wazlawek conducted four separate tests, three of them on Columbia MBA students and one on 500 U.S. adults not enrolled at the B-school. After being paired up for mock bargaining sessions over things like licensing rights, each of the MBA students answered questions about their own assertiveness and that of the person across the table. “A key question was whether people knew what their counterparts thought of them,” the study says.
The results surprised even Ames, who had expected to find some differences in perception. Consider: 56% of the people described by their counterparts as too pushy believed they had come across as just right, or even a little bit too soft. Conversely, 57% of the negotiators perceived as pushovers thought they had been assertive enough, or even pushed too hard.
“Together, these results suggest that people who got assertiveness wrong in the eyes of others had about a coin-flip’s chance of recognizing how they were seen,” the study says.
In real-life negotiations, what Ames and Wazlawek call the “line-crossing illusion”—negotiators’ belief that they had gone too far, or crossed a line—can be expensive. People who mistakenly thought they had pushed too hard were more likely to try to repair relationships, sometimes agreeing to less valuable terms in subsequent sessions, just to smooth things over.
“These negotiators were attempting costly repairs for something that wasn’t broken,” the study says. “The result was that both sides lost out on what could have been a better deal.” Ames notes that the main research subjects “were Columbia B-school students. These are not shy people. But even they tended to think they’d gone too far, even when others didn’t think so.”
So how can you get an accurate reading on how assertive you seem? Ames offers three tips he gives his negotiating classes. “First, cultivate mentors and peer relationships, where people will give you their honest opinion,” he says. Second, before any important bargaining session, “role-play with someone who can coach you. Say you’re asking for a raise or a promotion. Practice ahead of time with a friend who will tell you if you’re pushing too hard or not hard enough.”
Then, when a negotiation is over, “try to get feedback from your counterparts,” Ames says. “This isn’t always possible when you’re shaking hands on a deal, or when the other party has stormed out of the room, but later on, ask how they think it went.” This third step may be especially useful for negotiators who are seen as driving too hard a bargain, he adds. “Just because you got to ‘yes’ doesn’t mean they don’t resent you.”