What do magic tricks, Sigmund Freud and conference calls have in common?

They’ve all influenced the negotiation strategies of Program on Negotiation faculty member Daniel L. Shapiro, Ph.D. Here’s a bit Q&A with Professor Shapiro, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

Q. What’s one surprising thing people may not know about you?

A: When I was seven years old, I bought a book called The Amateur Magician’s Handbook, which led to seven weeks of magic classes. It became one of my childhood passions. I even had business cards that said, “For sleight of hand, call Magic Dan.” I used to perform at birthday parties for the wild charge of $2 for a half-hour show. I remember feeling incredibly guilty when I bumped it up to $5.

Q: Do you still practice magic?

A: Not recently, but I truly think that training in magic was one of the best forms of education I could have had. I learned how to speak in front of people and keep their attention. It also taught me that there is often more than meets the eye. My whole life’s work has been dedicated to that—trying to understand what’s beneath the surface in deeply embedded conflict situations, when it looks like two people are acting irrational or against their own interests. Maybe it’s an illusion and we need to understand what’s really behind it in order to help move things forward.

Q: What personality trait do you feel causes the most or biggest problems at the bargaining table?

A: Obstinance is a big problem. When negotiators are completely egoistic and stuck on themselves, they’re unlikely to listen to others. They’re unlikely to seek an outcome that works for everybody, and in turn, they fail to achieve an optimal outcome. I think strong muscle without emotional sensibility doesn’t take you very far..

I highly agree. In an Impact Negotiation, comprehending the mindset of our counterpart is paramount. It’s not just about avoiding conflicts but fostering meaningful interactions and fostering shared understandings. Today, we’re delving into another principle of Impact Techniques – the art of “Visualizing Known Information”

In Impact Negotiation, the objective isn’t merely to communicate, but to resonate. This process often involves taking the familiar – everyday objects, experiences, and knowledge – and putting them into a novel context. It’s about crafting a bridge between the known and the new, fostering a rich tapestry of cognitive, emotional, visual, and tactile responses, all caused a “shift of perspective” onto a interesting process.

By using visualization techniques, we can elicit stronger engagement from our counterparts, facilitating their openness and improving their ability to process our messages best way. Let’s explore three examples of how everyday objects can be used in this context.

  1. The Hourglass: The custom made hourglass can symbolize time scarcity and the need for decision-making. It can create a sense of urgency, triggering a cognitive response that encourages your client to focus and weigh their options.
  2. The Jigsaw Puzzle: A custom made jigsaw puzzle is a great metaphor for problem-solving. Each piece represents a different aspect of the problem, and only when all the pieces are put together can the complete picture – or solution – be seen. This can visually convey the complexity of an issue and the need for comprehensive solutions.
  3. The Compass: The custom made/labeled compass can represent direction and guidance. By using it, you could visually communicate your role as a guide in the negotiation process, helping your client navigate the complexities and move towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

In each of these examples, we’re linking known information (the familiar object) with new information (the negotiation context), triggering multi sensory responses and enhancing client engagement, but here’s my favorite for you:

The Gypsy Thread magic trick, which involves breaking a thread into multiple pieces and then magically restoring it to a single piece, can symbolically perfectly well! represent the process of resolving a conflict or dispute in a negotiation. The broken thread can represent the relationship between the disputing parties, which has been damaged or severed due to circumstances of  conflict.

As the magician (or in this case, the negotiator or mediator) slowly gathers and restores the broken thread, it signifies the process of careful listening, understanding, and piecing together the different perspectives and interests of the parties involved in the dispute. The final act of restoring the thread to its original form can represent the resolution of the conflict, where the once broken relationship is now healed and whole again… “..and now we start from scratch, please”

This magic trick can serve as a powerful visual and symbolic tool in negotiations, particularly in emotionally charged conflicts. It can help the parties involved understand that their fragmented relationship can be mended and made whole again, much like the broken thread.

Moreover, as Professor Shapiro mentions, magic can teach us that there is often. way. more. than meets the eye. In a negotiation context, this could refer to the underlying interests, concerns, and emotions that may not be immediately apparent in a conflict situation. The Gypsy Thread trick, therefore, can also signify the process of revealing and addressing these hidden elements to resolve the conflict effectively. Finally, the very act of performing a magic trick in the midst of a tense negotiation could potentially lighten the atmosphere, introduce an element of surprise, and shift the participants’ focus, making them more receptive to dialogue and resolution by “Zooming Out” after intense talks, overlook the whole picture of the negotiation, focus back onto steps heal a heated situation. Here’s how to do and enjoy healthy, “magical” relationships: https://youtu.be/GBrhijyR6FY

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