An exercise in Mental Limits

What kind of Negotiator are you?  Competitive, accommodating, a good compromiser?  Here’s a little exercise I use a lot on my Negotiations courses, designed to help you benchmark yourself against my extensive (Global) norm group of professional businesspeople.

The Honesty Tablet

To get any value from this exercise you must take a metaphorical “honesty tablet” before undertaking it.  If you fake your response, you are only kidding yourself.  Here goes.  What’s coming up is a true life scenario which happened to me in a hotel in Edinburgh.  I’ll tell you what actually happened after you’ve done the exercise.

You’re in this nice hotel in central Edinburgh.  Your company uses the place regularly.  At 3am the fire alarm goes off and you troop outside in your dressing gown and stand around for 30 minutes in the freezing cold.  Back to bed, and you lie awake cursing them.  At 7am you haul yourself out of bed and into the shower, only to find there is no hot water.  So it’s a cold shower and shave.

You are now at reception, checking out.  What, if anything,  do you say to the receptionist about the cold water?  Please think about this and write down your answer.  Listen to this great piece of Radiohead transcribed for piano if you like whilst you’re thinking about it.  It’s one of the most beautiful bits of music I know.


So, welcome back!  What have you got?  The range goes from:  “Feel a bit upset about it but don’t complain as it probably wasn’t their fault” to a more compromising “Tell them I’m annoyed and ask for a voucher to use next time – £50 would be good”, and then up to “Tell them this is utterly unacceptable, a breach of contract in fact, and refuse to pay.”  I even had someone say they wanted a free night this time and a voucher for a free one on a subsequent visit.

In other words, the various Mental Limits which apply here say that some people think this is worth £0 and some see it as worth more like £150.  Imagine if this was a contract renewal and similar Mental Limits were applying.  Scary stuff!  How does your result compare here, and what might it say about your general attitude towards Negotiation and Conflict?

What actually happened?  I asked them what they could do for me, and the receptionist went and got the Duty Manager, who apologised profusely and said: “I imagine you will be expecting us to write off last night’s bill?”  My answer:  “That’ll do nicely.”  My old favourite model: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” helping to make light of an otherwise potentially high conflict situation.

The thing is, Mental Limits stop us from negotiating as hard as we might otherwise, and if we think we have done a good deal, it’s a good deal in our mind.  Until we meet someone who does a much better deal in the same situation.  We learn these Mental Limits, and they can be developed (or Unlearnt, in fact).

Have you got any great examples of where you found out that you left money on the table?  If so, please share!

Photo © Saharrr –

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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10 Responses to An exercise in Mental Limits

  1. Thanks for another great read! It’s our beliefs that hold us back and keep us from what we want! And thanks for the Christopher O’Riley! I’ve added him to my spotify mix.


  2. Angela Sarabia says:

    Hi Michael,
    My first instinct is to ask, “what can you do for me?”, and indeed I did just that following a poor experience in a hotel in Barcelona a few years ago. After taking a shower, I stepped out to find the floor in the bathroom and indeed in the hallway flooded with foul smelling water.
    However, when I asked the duty manager, what he could do for me on this morning that I was checking out, he explained that this sort of thing happened regularly in this area of Barcelona, as they had poor drainage, which would sometimes backup following a few days of rain. So, he could offer me another room to have a new shower, and a free cup of coffee. I wasn’t impressed.
    Having started with a collaborative approach, I finally resorted to the competitive approach and demanded that he compensate me with deducting the breakfast and 3 bottles of water from the bill that I’d taken from the minibar. And if he didn’t agree, then I would continue to complain in a loud voice in the reception area, about stinking (sewer) drains and soggy carpets in the whole hotel room.
    He subsequently complied – neither of us was very happy ;o(
    But I did at least try the collaborative approach to begin with ;o)


    • Hi Angela
      Yes, the trouble with Collaborating is firstly that it takes time (which you didn’t have, I suspect), and that it requires both parties to want to do so. If they other party declines, then the best you can hope for, having waved a baseball bat around a bit, is a Compromise. Not great, but better than nothing!

      Thanks for sharing, I hope all is well with you!


  3. Paula Rossini says:

    Haha. You trained me well Michael! In my head I was asking the receptionist what they could do for me 🙂


  4. Dave Hills says:

    I was involved, sort of in a similar experience, I went to an hotel in London, and was down at breakfast in the morning when people were all talking about the fire alarm and being out in the street half the night, when I inquired (seeking first to understand of course:-) what happened, they told me the fire alarm had gone off and all the guests were asked to leave. All that is, except me who slept through the whole thing and never even noticed. I didn’t say anything at check out, but thinking about it now, perhaps I should have…. but I’m a too damn fair negotiator!


    • Hi Dave
      Classic! A case of “you don’t know what you don’t know!”
      Yes, I expect there are people out there who would have made something of that (risk to life and limb, sue you, reputation, health and safety etc.). But like me, you are too nice for that!


  5. JM Engel says:

    Hi Michael,
    As usual, i like your postings!
    As a 7 Habits certified facilitator, you are spot on with the seek first to understand (Habit 5) and assertive and couragous (Habit 4) skill in negotiaitions…It works!!!


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