Pre-suasion: Strategic Precedent Setting for Negotiations

How do we maximise our chances that our ideas will be received favourably? Entering into an unknown environment with an unknown counterpart can leave our intrinsically strong arguments to fall apart in the midst of a negotiation. To ensure we are prepared in in control of any negotiation situation, we can learn the art of  ‘pre-suasion’.

What You’ll Learn: How to identify psychological biases in order to to create advantageous focal points for negotiations.

Expected Reading Time: 10-15 mins, (~1,600 words)



In the first century AD lived a man called Hero of Alexandria. Hero created a simple radial steam turbine which spun when a central water container was heated.

This invention is now recognized as the first steam engine. So why did it take nearly two millennia for humanity to use this knowledge during the Industrial Revolution?

To mildly abstract, nobody looked at it as a practical device. The Roman engineer Vitruvius described it as a “slight and short experiment” to help understand the laws of the heavens, but did not look for a practical application. The value of the steam engine itself was irrelevant — it only mattered how people actually looked at it.

In the face of a potentially unreceptive and uninterested audience, how to do we sell our proposals?

In short, we pre-negotiate. A beautifully crafted persuasive argument can completely backfire if you don’t control what is happening before you deliver it. In other words, you have to pre-negotiate before you can negotiate.


1. Pre-Negotiation: Then to Now

“The wise win before they fight, while the ignorant fight to win.”  – Zhuge Liang (third-century Chinese military strategist)

The concept of influencing your counterpart before a formal meeting, whether that be negotiation or war, is not new, nor is it unintuitive.

However, a review of negotiation literature indicates that studies have almost exclusively focused on what occurs during the negotiation.[1] While areas related to pre-negotiation have been explored, these concepts have rarely been applied to the subject directly.

Though challenging, the task of further exploration should not be ignored. Leading international negotiation trainers claim that establishing strong foundations before a negotiation is one of the most important skills one can possess.[2]

With this in mind, a few have risen to the challenge.

  •  Harold Saunders, who negotiated for the US on countless international conflicts including the Iran Hostage crisis, advocated the need to improve our understanding of pre-negotiation.In 1985, he attempted to define three distinct phases: 1) Define the problem, 2) Develop a commitment to negotiate, and 3) Arrange negotiations.[3] Saunders draws the line of pre-negotiation to that which relates to an upcoming formal session, and ceases when that session begins.
  • In 1989, Janice Gross Stein suggested that pre-negotiation defines the boundaries of a formal session, shapes agendas, and has a distinct impact on the outcome.[4] Stein conceptualises similarly to Saunders, yet highlights how it can affect the process and outcome more.

From these frameworks a question arises — how do you define, develop, arrange, and shape this phase effectively? Answering that question requires more than a strict procedural approach.

As a pre-negotiation can often be the ‘first impression’ you present, targeting psychological biases present when first meeting someone can help us create the most effective strategy.


2. The psychology of pre-negotiation

“Meaning lies as much

in the mind of the reader

as in the Haiku” – Douglas Hofstadter[5]

The human mind is powerful when it comes to creating meaning. It shows that simply preparing a great proposal will not always guarantee success if your audience will interpret it with their own different meaning. So, as Saunders himself suggests, we must “depend as much on the social psychologist as on the practitioner in around-the-table negotiation.”[6]

Let’s explore two major applications of this concept, starting with Daniel Kahnemann’s exploration of “The Framing Effect”.[7]


3. The Framing Effect – Kahnemann

In his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow”, Kahemann presents the ‘Framing Effect’. In short, framing suggests that the context in which choices are presented can influence which is chosen.

Here’s a question: would you rather take $1,000 with 100% guarantee, or $3,000 with 20% guarantee?

Kahemann and Tversky found most people would overwhelmingly take the former deal.[9] They suggest that individuals are risk averse when assessing potential gains, and risk seeking when assessing potential losses. Risk is introduced by Kahemann and Tversky here to demonstrate a factor influencing behavior when presented with the frame of losses and gains.

So how can this affect negotiation?

As suggested by Farber and Katz,[10] risk-seeking will increase the chance of conflict escalation, impasse, strike, or third-party intervention, whereas risk aversion will increase the chance of choosing the certainty of a negotiated agreement.

Assuming an agreement is your goal, how do we influence a risk averse orientation? You frame your pre-negotiation commentary or stimulus in terms of potential gains! Using Saunders ‘Stage 1’ of pre-negotiation, your definition of the problem should frame your audience to be receptive to the gains of your proposal.[11]


4. ‘Back Road to Attentions’ – Cialdini

This brings us to a second related bias. Presented by Cialdini in his 2016 book ‘Pre-Suasion’,[8] the ‘Back Road to Attentions’ idea is that specific background features can direct attention and preferences. While interconnected with Kahemann’s framing, it is distinguished by its focus on more specific outcomes directed by individual factors.

Take, for instance, the study on the effect of in-store music on wine selection.[12] When French music was played, more French wines were purchased. When German music was played, more German wines were selected. What’s more, customers seemed unaware that music had any effect on their choice. The link between the background music and the direction of attention towards a particular wine can hold strongly even when we are oblivious to its effect!

What does this mean for negotiation?[13]

Say you are in the pre-negotiation phase to negotiations on the sale of beds. Your beds are much comfier, but more expensive than other options on the table for your counterpart. If you conduct an informal ‘get to know you’ meeting before your negotiation, and sit them on a comfy chair in a room with fluffy cloud paintings on the wall, and use words related to comfort like ‘relax’, ‘rest’, and ‘leisure’, the points of attention for your upcoming negotiation can be entirely shaped by you! The other party will be more likely to prioritise comfort over cost, within their acceptable range, just as customers did in Mandel and Johnson’s ‘Effects of visual primes’ study.[14]

As Cialdini puts it:

“Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it [or related ideas of it] in the past.” 


5. Conclusion

Though these psychological biases may seem obvious, it is shocking how little people harness their potential. Take a look at any angry negotiator trying to seal the deal or any poorly advertised item. If our biases are acknowledged, appreciated, and harnessed, to create the right frame and attention points, it can steer negotiations in entirely new and better directions.

In short: use the biases that underpin first impressions to set a receptive audience for your negotiation proposals!

[1] Perdue, Barbara C. and John O. Summers (1991), “Purchasing Agents’ Use of Negotiation Strategies”, Journal of Marketing Research, v28 (May): 175-189, Pruitt, Dean (1981), Negotiation Behavior, New York: Academic Press, and Fisher, Roger, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (1991), Getting to Yes, New York, NY: Penguin Books.

[2] Graham, Jong L, Alma T. Mintu, and Waymond Rogers (1994) “Explorations of Negotiation Behaviors in Ten Foreign Cultures using a Model Developed in the United States,” Management Science, v40 (January): 72-95.

[3] Saunders, H. H. (1985). We need a larger theory of negotiation: The importance of pre-negotiating phases. Negotiation journal, 1(3), 249-262.

[4] Stein, J. G. (1989). Getting to the table: processes of international prenegotiation. International Journal, 44(2), 231-236.

[5] Hofstadter, D. (1980). Godel Escher Bach.

[6] Saunders, H. H. (1985). We need a larger theory of negotiation: The importance of pre-negotiating phases. Negotiation journal, 1(3), 249-262.

[7] Kahemann, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (Vol. 1). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[8] Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-Suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. Simon and Schuster.

[9] Tversky, A., & Kahemann, D. (1981). Judgments of and by representativeness (No. TR-3). STANFORD UNIV CA DEPT OF PSYCHOLOGY.

[10] Farber, H. S., & Katz, H. C. (1979). Interest arbitration, outcomes, and the incentive to bargain. ILR Review, 33(1), 55-63.

[11] This does not preclude a negative premise per se. For instance, health care professionals may briefly lead with statistics on heart disease before going over the general greatness of working out. A sort of pre-frame within the pre-negotiation, if you will. The important take-away is that their focus is primed on the gain. Here, they will be more receptive to the gym membership packages offered in the negotiation.

[12] North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., & McKendrick, J. (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selections. Journal of Applied psychology, 84(2), 271.

[13] In a study  conducted by Kramer,  Newton,  and  Pommerenke  (1993) , participants were shown either a humorous or affect-neutral video before negotiating. They found that positive-mood negotiators were more confident going into the negotiation, and have higher self-ratings of performance after the negotiation, compared to the neutral-mood group. For the participants, the stimulus shown in the pre-negotiation of sorts provided a focal point for the positive behavior that followed. Compared to the first example, participants were very aware of the focal point as the stimulus that caused an increase in their positive behavior. Extrapolating to influencing the other party, the same technique can be used, and not just for mood.

[14] Mandel, N., & Johnson, E. J. (2002). When web pages influence choice: Effects of visual primes on experts and novices. Journal of consumer research, 29 (2), 235-245.

2019-02-20T18:50:13+00:00 By |Tags: , , |
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