A Harvard negotiation expert says this century-old Freudian concept can help you get a higher salary

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Become aware of your ‘repetition compulsions’ and start to change them. WOCinTech Chat/flickr

Daniel Shapiro has led conflict-management initiatives in the Middle East and taught negotiation strategies to high-powered execs in business and government.

As the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, he studies the emotional underpinnings of both personal and professional conflicts. His new book, “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable,” outlines the psychology behind some of his most effective negotiation techniques.

So in a situation where he’s negotiating his own salary, you might think he’d have no trouble at all.

Yet when he visited the Business Insider offices in April, Shapiro admitted just the opposite.

“When I start trying to negotiate money, I shrivel up,” he said. “It’s this pattern I have. I feel like, ‘Oh, I’m taking advantage of the other person.'”

This pattern of behaviour is what Shapiro refers to as a “repetition compulsion.” It’s a term that was coined in 1914 by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.

Dan Shapiro author photo
Daniel Shapiro. Fortier Public Relations

Shapiro described the repetition compulsion as “the human tendency to repeat the same dysfunctional patterns of behaviour again and again.”  

Awareness of your personal repetition compulsions is the first step to becoming a better negotiator, especially in discussions about compensation.

When you approach this uncomfortable conversation of asking for a raise, what’s your typical pattern? Do you typically ask it forcefully and push, push, push, push and you ultimately push the other away? Do you ask it meekly and withdraw when you probably should have advocated a little bit more? Are you too aggressive? Are you too collaborative and you’re not a good advocate?

Once you’ve identified your specific tendency, you can start coming up with ways to change your behaviour.

“Look at [your repetition compulsion] and think through that beforehand,” Shapiro said. “Think through what would be a more effective way to be when I go into these uncomfortable situations.”

For example, he said if you’re typically someone who avoids conflict or withdraws from conflict, “recognise that fact and think through, ‘What are a couple phrases I might say in this meeting to advocate more effectively for myself?'”

“It’s recognising your patterns and thinking, ‘What can I say or do to shift in a useful direction?'”

Of course, shifting your behaviour is a lot easier said than done. The behaviours that we should follow sometimes feel “utterly unnatural,” Shapiro said. That’s why being more assertive in salary negotiations is difficult for him — it feels out of character.

His personal strategy? “I imagine myself as Robert De Niro.”

He explained: “Suddenly there’s more of a toughness, a tough veneer. I’m going to fight for what I deserve. I’ll be empathic, but I’m not going to submit.”

As you channel De Niro or whoever it is that you seek to emulate, Shapiro said, “try and draw upon some of that character. All of a sudden you have this new emotional power that you never knew existed inside of you.”

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