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Updated: 14 Dec 2020

Conflict Negotiation: Psychological Dynamics


Negotiation conflict can often stem from psychological reasons that can make a negotiator become defensive. Discover the reasons for this conflict and how you can learn to de-fuse negative behaviour during your negotiations.

“It is easier to perceive error than to find the truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Freud is alleged to have said, “A cigar is just a cigar“. Yet at the negotiation table, differences in perception are too often distorted and magnified by the emotions and biased outcomes of one or more parties. Negotiation often needs to go through a conflict resolution or problem solving stage before it can be creative and grow opportunities. This article shares some of the background and lessons negotiators need to unravel the knots that too often tie up our negotiations.

Defence Mechanisms Used in the Negotiation Process

There are two ways to view how conflict can arise during a negotiation.

  1. A negotiator’s internal state will directly affect the interaction between the parties at the negotiation table.
  2. The interaction that occurs at the table, will have a direct affect on the negotiating parties.

A conflict or dispute causes us to become defensive or offensive. This is not dissimilar from the “fight or flight” response we have in our more primitive brain. Our reaction as people is complex. Nonetheless, we all respond with a “cause and effect” reaction when confronted with a conflict during our business negotiations. Here are some of the most prevalent of the defense mechanisms, used by negotiators in a conflict setting:

  • Denial – Like the proverbial ostrich with their head stuck in the sand, we do not acknowledge the existence of any conflict. If we don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist or will go away.
  • Avoidance – Just like it sounds, we know the conflict is there, but we don’t want to deal with it, and make or find excuses to not deal with it..
  • Projection – Permits us to deny our own faults by projecting these faults onto others. An example would be, “You’re at fault, not me“. Signs that indicate that projections are often based on vulnerability, helplessness, being over vigilant, hostility or suspicion. A person responds by either withdrawing or attacking.
  • Reaction Formation – In this situation, a person might respond by adopting the traits or mannerisms of the person with whom they are engaged in conflict.
  • Displacement – Rather than take our emotional reaction, such as anger out on the person we are in dissent with, we take it out on another person. Another form of displacement is to attack the person by changing the original topic of conflict, with some other unrelated complaint.
  • Counter phobic – This defense entails our denying the anxiety we feel about the conflict, by becoming aggressive, confrontational, or carrying the proverbial “chip on the shoulder“.
  • Escalation of the importance of the conflict – A person will respond to the conflict by blowing it out of proportion, or expressing their own needs, by acting overly melodramatic, and appearing too needy for attention. We want other people to believe our immediate needs are more important.
  • Rationalising and minimizing the scope of the conflict – A person distances themselves emotionally from the conflict, by concentrating on details or unrelated details.

If we find that either we or our counterparty is reacting in a defensive manner, the above may help in characterizing the reason behind the defensive response. When we realize what is occurring, we can take proactive steps to change the conflict into a problem-solving venue instead.

Four Major Reasons Why People Engage in Irrational Behaviour

Several of the most common reasons why negotiators may behave in an otherwise irrational manner include:

  1. Reflecting Blame – This allows an individual to place their own problems or inadequacies on the other person so they avoid altering their own behavior.
  2. Habitual Reaction – Many of the reasons an individual may respond in a defensive manner, is a habitual response he has developed from early on in his formative development. In a way, this response acts as a suitable retreat, so the individual can return to familiar patterns of behavior. This behavior becomes comfortable for them when faced with unknown situations.
  3. Provides a Measure of Excitement – By reacting defensively, the individual allows themselves to change the rules of the game should they be feeling bored, dissatisfied or engaged in internal conflict. Individuals suffering from depression, may also resort to a defensive response and use it as a stimulant to engage in conflict.
  4. To Gain Approval from Others – Acting defensively may also be used to receive moral support from others. To change their attitude might end up in a withdrawal of this support, or a possible loss of self esteem.

Measures to Change Defensive Posturing to Mutual Problem Solving

Once we become aware of the possible reason or basis for the impasse or conflict, we can take steps to mitigate defensive behavior to find resolution. To do so we must recognize the following:

  1. Cooperation is Key – We must understand that we cannot impose our own resolution on someone who is in a defensive pose. The other person must become part of the solution by being included, through a cooperative effort by both parties to find a mutual resolution.
  2. Two Way Street – For a mutually agreed solution to be found, the other party must be shown, they cannot impose their own proposal to resolve the matter. They too must adopt a measure of mutual cooperation.
  3. Both Parties Must Believe – If one or both parties do not possess any hope for a successful resolution, then cooperation is unlikely. Both parties must believe there is hope in resolving the conflict.
  4. Trust the Resolution – When a negotiated resolution is accomplished, both parties should abide by the agreement. If there is a lack of trust, the agreement will become shaky or not sustainable.

Understanding their Interests is Vital

A person’s sense of identity, self esteem, and personal security, are intangibles that are often inherently non negotiable items. To unlock the defensive mold, we will need to alleviate their internal concerns by making them see, that we are interested in addressing their emotional interests. They are then likely to become more amenable to working cooperatively.

We can achieve an understanding of their interests, by active listening while indicating we understand and empathize with the emotional basis for their defensive posturing. This does not mean we have to agree with their response. By taking this attitude we are signaling we are willing to be open minded and responsive. Acknowledging that their defensiveness deserves considering, will assist in greatly reducing the hostility.


Conflict in negotiation may have a psychological basis that doesn’t fully show itself at the negotiation table. There are many reasons why people respond defensively, or with some measure of hostility. We have to engage in communication to better understand the underlying reason behind this behavior. A cooperative atmosphere can only be engendered when both parties think cooperatively, and believe that the other party will abide by any agreement they reach. It always takes one party to act first by being collaborative. Negotiators must always strive to fully understand the real interests that lay behind the position.


  1. The Negotiators Fieldbook, Edited by Andrea Kupfer Schneider & Christopher Honeyman (2006), ‘The Interplay between Internal and External Conflict’, By Morton Deutsch.
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 StarsRate this Article
4.3 out of 5 from 4 responses
  • 3
    Dehlia Lopez on

    I appreciate the comments left to show how conflict and resolution is identified and worked out all over the world. I also understand that because this is the Internet, different people from different countries with different communicative skills are using the site. Spell check is often preferred, but if your English is not at a level of communication needed. I understand the differences shared by many in this country from other countries where the level of communication and understanding in cultures and languag differ. Different distictions of communication are out there, it is too bad others cannot understand this and get past the need for spell-check, maybe time got in the way, they were in a hurry, or just posted without understanding. Get over it! Seriously, some people need to just get a life. English is NOT always the language used by ever submitter or for that matter blogger.

  • 3
    LE on

    While the article itself was rather useful I found it disappointing that spell check could not be used.

  • 12
    Dr. Piotr Jednaszewski on

    I lecture negotiations to managers and most of our classes go around psychological aspects of negotiations and difficulties which may arise because of different socio-cultural aspects. This is a very good article and it should be read by those who aim to brush up their negotiation skills.

  • 14
    Dr. Settlement, J. D. (Juris D) on

    We teach members at http://www.SettlementCentral.Com how to negotiate a successful personal injury insurance award. This article has EXCELLENT insights into factors that influence both sides in negotiations. If we all look honestly at what you have written, we can see ourselves in some of those positions you describe. Well done; we will encourage our members to use your site in conjunction with the insurance negotiation tips at http://www.SettlementCentral.Com.

    Dr. Settlement, J. D. (Juris Doctor)

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