We’ve all been there: our negotiation or mediation has been dragging on for several hours now. It’s close to lunch time, or maybe dinner. But we’re so close to a deal. We trudge onward. It will only be another hour or so. Yet, one hour turns into two, maybe three, and, before we know it, we are tired, hungry, and cranky–hardly at our best to consummate a complex transaction. You know it, and I know it: we should have taken a break when the thought to do so first occurred. Now, behavioral science confirms that, because conflict resolution is hard mental work, failing to honor the need of our brain for a break to preserve optimum focus is a big mistake.
In his provocative book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman breaks human thinking into two systems. System one operates automatically, intuitively, and quickly, with little conscious or voluntary control such as, immediately assessing the threat of a stranger, turning to the source of a sound, or doing a simple calculation. System two, on the other hand utilizes attention to mental activities that take effort, like computation, choice, and concentration.
Engaging in a negotiation or mediation obviously requires continual attention, concentration, and focus–system two functions in Kahneman’s hierarchy. Maintaining the thought processes to successfully negotiate requires discipline and self-control. Unfortunately, this mental work is also tiring, and a negotiator must therefore be vigilant in guarding against depletion of his or her mental resources. As Kahneman notes, mental work has real physical consequences: “The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose.” He observes that experiments done by researchers suggest that the effects of “ego depletion” –the inability to muster enough self-control to meet successive mental challenges–can be undone by ingesting glucose. In other words, replacing available sugar in the brain is likely to boost mental performance. Perhaps the most shocking example of “ego depletion” is Kahneman’s report of a research experiment showing diminished performance among judges who are tired and hungry versus those who are rested and
What’s the lesson here for negotiators and mediators? Nutrition is no less important for us than for accomplished athletes. Resist the temptation to soldier on through a tough negotiation. Take breaks regularly. And seize the opportunity during the break to have something to eat that will feed the brain and keep you sharp. If you are a mediator, have some healthy snacks on hand to keep your participants from getting hungry. And insist on breaks even if your clients don’t request them. Better conflict resolution is likely to be the result.