More and more studies show that optimism can improve your health, happiness, and I would add, even your success at persuasion and consensus building.
Going into a conversation with a positive attitude works in your favor. But expecting trouble can lower your confidence, and thus, lessen your effectiveness. Moreover, our expectations of the other person come out in subtle ways that we aren’t aware of, and that person tends to live up or down to those expectations.
In one of the negotiation training courses I took from Dr. Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project, I had made a friend I’ll call Linda. One day, we were assigned a paired role-play exercise concerning a sexual harassment situation. As I recall, it involved only verbal approaches by the male boss toward the female employee, no physical abuse. He later claimed that his words were not meant as a come on, and he was now seeking reconciliation with her. This was back before the ways of dealing with those situations weren’t as codified as they are now.
After we did the exercise with our partners, we came back into our small working group to debrief. Most of the people who had played the role of the woman had gone into the exercise fully believing that the man had intended to come on to her and was now lying about his intentions. They went in with their mental boxing gloves on. They came out with poor results.
Perhaps because my partner was not only another woman, but my friend Linda, I went into the conversation relaxed and relatively optimistic. When Linda claimed that she hadn’t meant to come on to me, the thought occurred that her past statements were mighty strange words to choose if she didn’t mean to come on to me. But being relaxed, I just let the conversation flow. I remained focused on my interests—what I wanted out of the conversation and how best to negotiate those things.
I returned to the debriefing session having negotiated all sorts of concessions from my “boss” Linda. These included an enforceable promise never to say or do anything the least bit suggestive in the future, a promise with consequences for breach. Moreover, Linda agreed to cover my tuition for some night courses I wanted to take at the local college.
This doesn’t mean that we should be naïve, or blindly trust people. I was aware that Linda may or may not have been telling the truth about the come on. I was also aware that, if I had reacted negatively to everything she said just because she was the one who said it, if I had called her a liar and insisted on a confession, I would not have satisfied my interest in eliminating future harassment as well as I did, much less would I have negotiated the tuition perk.
So how do we cultivate optimism without naivety? You can boost calmness and optimism by meditation, visualizing good outcomes, and developing a practice of gratitude, such as keeping a gratitude journal.
As for squelching the naivety, fall back on sound consensus building practices. Before you negotiate, get clear on your interests. Develop a walkaway alternative (what will you do for yourself if you don’t reach agreement with the other person?). Then, when you have a prospective agreement on the table, ask yourself: Which satisfies my interests better, this agreement or my walkaway alternative? If the answer is, “This agreement,” you can’t make a bad deal by accepting it.
And for much more about how to clarify your interests and develop a walkaway alternative, see Bridges to Consensus, Chapters 5 and 12.