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CSI (Conflict Scene Investigation): Why the brain likes to hang out with Columbo, Monk, and Sherlock Holmes

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

The brain likes to be creatively engaged. Creative and thoughtful engagement lessens stress and fear, and therefore can lead to better ideas.  An activity important to conflict resolution, and an activity of creative engagement, is questioning. Our brains like to formulate and answer questions.

The brain likes to be a detective and the detective work helps in negotiation. The authors of the Harvard Business Review article "Investigative Negotiation" say, "The best way to get what you’re after in a negotiation—sometimes the only way—is to approach the situation the way a detective approaches a crime scene." The brain gives that statement a high five.

"Investigative Negotiation" by Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman was featured at HBR in Brief. The authors present and discuss five principles of investigative negotiation. Pretty basic, but nevertheless a reminder of the basics is often very beneficial. And they provide some illustrations and explanations worth reading.

  • Ask why the other side wants what it wants. (Note: I discourage the use of "why" questions and use other inquiries to uncover the reasons.)
  • Mitigate the other party’s constraints.
  • Interpret demands as opportunities.
  • Create common ground with adversaries.
  • Investigate even if the deal seems lost.

"Investigative negotiation is both a mind-set and a methodology," Malhotra and Bazerman say in their book Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond. (In their book they include two more principles in addition to the five above.) They add, "[T]he goal is to learn as much as possible about the situation and the people involved."

In Negotiation Genius, the authors include a section on "eliciting information from reticent negotiators." Of course, one of the five strategies for eliciting is "Ask Questions."

Negotiators often do not bother to ask questions because they assume the other party will not answer them. This is a colossal mistake. While there is no guarantee that someone will answer your questions, one thing is certain: your questions are more likely to be answered if you ask them than if you don’t.

Remember, the questions are not just for gaining information. They are for brain management, too. Questions often will facilitate the discussion moving from reactive to reflective. Getting the frontal cortex asking and answering can lessen the involvement of the amygdala. For more about the amygdala, see my post Don’t let the nut run the conflict resolution. The inquiring mind can create a calmer brain—and a negotiation genius.


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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