One popular question asked of me in practically every mediation is “what is the environment in the other room?”  The environment consists of several things:  The attitude, the emotional status of the parties, the interaction between the client and attorney, the anxiety level, and the mood, among many other things.  But one thing in common about all those environmental attributes is the fact that all of them are unstated or reflected unconsciously.  For the most part, people don’t tell the mediator, “my emotional status is depressed right now, and I really don’t like my attorney, and I am mean spirited usually, but I am putting on a show for you today.”  These are all things that are often unstated and and unobserved, except on an unconscious level.  In fact, the reality is that most of the information that we, as mediators and as negotiators, process is on an unconscious level.

According to Nick Morgan, author of   Power Cues:  The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, published May 13, 2014 by Harvard, the conscious mind is extremely limited in what it can handle.  Most of our major processing goes on unconsciously.

In one study, participants picked the future winner of a political race based on a quick look at the candidates’ photos.  In a variety of others, people have assessed the honesty, suitability for partnership and parenthood, and so on, based on the now-infamous thin-slicing of Blink fame.

What’s going on, and what’s in it for speakers?  Are audiences going on instantly-formed first impressions of how interesting a speaker is likely to be and if so, what can we do about that?

Our conscious minds can handle roughly 40 bits of information a second.  That sounds like a lot until you know that our unconscious minds can handle 11 millions bps.  And so we’ve evolved to let our unconscious minds handle first impressions, along with a lot of other things, because our conscious minds are easily overwhelmed with just talking and trying not to spill coffee on ourselves.

So when we walk into the other room, we are processing 40 bits of information consciously: the number of participants, the identity of the parties, etc.  But our unconscious minds is working in overdrive to identify so many other things:  Do they appear tense, stressed, happy to see you, in the midst of a conversation, secretive, and so many other things.  Those unconscious things are what people want to know.  And in some sense, parties hire the mediator based on his or her ability to identify and understand those myriad of unconscious clues.

But what if you aren’t in mediation?  Can you better identify and understand those unconscious clues?  The following suggestions may help to train your mind to better understand the 11 million bps of information being sent to you:

  • Be mindful before you enter the negotation.  Doing so will help you focus more on those subtle clues and will free your mind from its misconceptions and open you to accepting those unconscious clues.
  • Concentrate.  Remember back in school when you really wanted to learn something?  You sat up, leaned forward, and really concentrated on something.  And that was hard work.  Most of the time we go into an interaction or negotiation, we are on auto-pilot.  Take control back of the wheel and focus.
  • Focus on four basic emotions: Happy, sad, angry and surprised.   Researchers have concluded that we may only have 4 basic emotions.  Focusing on whether you can pick up those four emotions (which are universal) can help you better understand the mood in the room.
  • Take a moment after your interaction to digest the information.  If you can, after a brief interaction, take the time to quickly do a mental assessment of your unconscious impressions.  By digesting the information consciously, you can take the unconscious and now make it a part of your conscious process.

So, what is the environment in the other room?  My answer, what does your unconscious mind have to say about that?