Faculty Q&A: Daniel Ames on Negotiation, Self-Awareness and Mind Reading

August 27, 2014
Photo by Eileen Barroso

As a Business School professor who has won awards for teaching excellence, Daniel Ames doesn’t seem like someone associated with mind reading. Yet Ames specializes not only in mind reading—the inferences we make about what other people think—but also in self-awareness and how people form impressions. It turns out that mastery of these skills is at the root of effective leadership and negotiation.

Ames, who was born in Kenosha, Wis., and has a doctorate in social and personality psychology, teaches an elective on negotiations at the Business School and coordinates some two dozen sections of the popular course. The 44-year-old professor has witnessed the powerful impact it has on the almost 1,000 M.B.A. students who enroll in it every year. “Our students come back and say, ‘This changed my life—not because it helped me get more money, but because I better understand how to work with other people to solve problems.’”

The psychological science that Ames teaches is not the stuff of anxieties and phobias, but rather how to be effective as a leader, at the bargaining table and working with other people. And his teaching is informed by his own behavioral research. Indeed, Ames believes that today’s business schools are at the center of groundbreaking work in the social sciences. “The work we’re doing is being published in the leading outlets that our colleagues in social science departments are publishing in, and we’re in constant dialogue with them,” he says.

In his teaching, he employs surveys, peer reviews, self-assessments and other tools to help students cultivate self-awareness. “It takes a good deal of courage on the part of our students, who have to be willing to take feedback and criticism,” says Ames, Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Business Management. “They get this chance to learn in a safe laboratory environment and start tuning their behavior in a way that they can then take to the real world and thrive.”

Q: A central aspect of your work on social judgment and behavior is how people “read minds.” Can you elaborate?

A: For almost two decades I’ve looked at different versions of the question of how we figure out other people. Some of it is based on our impressions of others. Another part is how we read other people’s minds—what are you thinking, what do you want? That’s a mystery that has occupied scientists and philosophers for thousands of years. The other side of my research is how people interact with others successfully in situations of conflict, negotiation or leadership. And these two areas are related because how people deal with conflict and lead and negotiate effectively is bound up with how they model the people that they’re interacting with.

Q: Can you explain the techniques that we use to read minds?

A: Every time we have a conversation with somebody, we posit something about what’s going on in their head. There’s been a longstanding debate in cognitive science about whether we do this through simulationism, meaning I basically figure out what’s in your head by using myself [as an example]. Or whether we use theories and knowledge to figure people out. It seems obvious to me that people do both of these things. So then the question is, which one of these do we use to read somebody’s mind at any given moment? Some of my work suggests that people use early clues about whether someone’s similar to us or not to figure out which strategy to use.

Q: How much do good leaders rely on mind reading?

A: Outside of command and control contexts like the military, leadership is a social construction—that means good leaders are as effective as their potential to get people to enthusiastically want to enact their direction. It’s probably not sustainable to lead by fear, punishment and compulsion. Most effective leaders lead by having followers who are committed to wanting to enact their vision. And so those leaders have to care about what the people around them think. It doesn’t mean that they have to be friends with everybody, but leaders need to know whether and when people see them as competent, reliable and trustworthy.

Q: Is it fair to describe negotiation as the root of most business interactions?

A: I would say negotiation, and conflict more broadly, is an inescapable part of everyday life. Anytime you have two people whose interests are not perfectly aligned, you have to make a choice. How are we going to sort this out? Most of the time, most of us get it sufficiently right that we get through our days. But my collaborators and I have found when we’ve looked at people’s perceptions of others in the workplace, many are seen as pushing too hard for their interests, and other people are seen as not pushing hard enough.

Q: What makes for an ideal leader or negotiator?

A: I don’t think there’s a single style that everyone should aspire to, whether it’s for leadership or negotiation. There are lots of styles that can work. What many people find is that they are able to [figure it out] when they’re exposed to the right kind of feedback. In our negotiation courses we bring people together week after week and have them work through a problem with somebody else. Then we pull back the curtain and say, “Here’s your partner, you’ve gotten to a deal. You think they like you, or you think you got the best possible deal terms, but let’s find out.” We give our students suggestions for how to negotiate effectively, but the most powerful approach is letting people hear the feedback. Then they instinctively start to calibrate their behavior and find ways to not give up but maybe ask in a way that preserves the relationship.

Q: Are skills in negotiation and conflict resolution essential in any career path?

A: The case has become clear over the last few decades that conflict behavior has incredibly high stakes for our work productivity and leadership, for our health and well-being. To thrive in whatever endeavor we apply ourselves to, we need to be able to work through disagreements productively and effectively. Our 25- and 30-year-old M.B.A. students are investing in this reasonably early in their careers. But in our training programs at the Business School we have plenty of people, senior leaders, who are coming back and say[ing], “This is what I have the hardest time with in my profession.”

Q: Are such skills equally important for people outside the U.S. corporate world?

A: I’ve been struck by how universal many of the challenges are. I work with our M.B.A. students, a third or more of whom are from outside of the United States. I’ve worked in our programs teaching people around the world from Brooklyn to Saudi Arabia, with populations ranging from investment bankers to kindergarten teachers to museum curators. And each time I go to a new audience or a new country, I wonder: Is what I’m about to say going to make sense to this group? So I’ll talk about conflict or negotiation, some of the basic challenges we face and the recommended good practices. And every single time I’ve found that people breathe a sigh of relief. They recognize their challenges in what I’m saying.

Q: You have said that in order to negotiate effectively, people have to be aware of how they come across. Is there any way to teach self-awareness?

A: In our classes we have people complete assessments of themselves and their counterparts after negotiations. We compile these responses and feed them back to our students in reports. That’s really powerful as a learning experience. It’s also something that we’ve harnessed as researchers and scholars to examine questions such as, how well do people know how others see them in negotiations and conflicts? Some of the recent research I’ve done with my collaborator Abbie Wazlawek suggests that people often don’t have a clue. There are a few possible reasons for this—one is that the signals we send and receive are often faint and noisy. Another is that we draw the wrong conclusions because of things like self-flattery.

Q: What accounts for the disconnect among negotiators?

A: Our results suggest several things are at work. One is that we tend to assume others see us as we see ourselves. For instance, I think I’m generous so I assume you must see me the same way. What surprised us in our recent research was another effect—that many people who are seen as getting assertiveness right mistakenly think they’re seen as crossing the line. In other words, I think you see me as a jerk when in fact you actually think I’m doing just fine. This kind of mistake can have unhelpful consequences on our behavior and outcomes.

Q: What role do race, culture and gender play in our perceptions of others?

A: A negotiation or a conflict is usually a conversation, and how this plays out depends on the cultural context and our assumptions about other people. Some cultures are famously blunt and candid. In other cultures, there’s much less open and direct disagreement. And when you have people working in different codes, it can make the challenge of negotiation much harder. In a sense every one of our classes at the Business School is a chance for people to deal with these differences because our student body is so diverse.

Q: What can social science tell us about the way we form impressions?

A: One route is bottom-up, which means I look at how you act and I draw some conclusions based on what I see you doing, like helping or hurting other people. Another route is more of a top-down or category-based approach. I judge you based on your race, sex or ethnicity, or your group memberships, and I start to draw conclusions. In my own work on impression formation I’ve been fascinated by some other routes, such as conversation behavior—the way in which other people talk and what they talk about as a signal of what’s going on in their heads. I’ve also examined listening behavior and the inferences we draw about people based on how they listen. And I’ve looked at how people talk about third parties. We call these “professed impressions.” When you tell me about someone else you know, I take your description of that person as not just diagnostic of that person but as telling me something about you.

Q: What’s next for you on the research horizon?

A: My colleague [Gantcher Associate Professor of Business] Malia Mason and I are working on how negotiators can frame offers in a way that’s most effective. More broadly I’ve been interested in trying to develop a more comprehensive account of how people’s behavior in conflict and negotiation reflects their models of the people that they’re interacting with. In other words, that part of what’s happening in conflict and negotiation is not just the issue that we’re debating or the settlement that we’re trying to reach, but my model of what you’re like and my model of what I think you think I’m like. This is a rich, complicated and practical topic—and it should keep me occupied for quite some time.

— Interviewed by Wilson Valentin