Negotiating with emotions

When Fisher and Uri published “Getting to Yes” in 1981 two of the key principles of “Principled Negotiations” they defined was to separate the people from the issues and to establish objective criteria on which a negotiation should be based. The aim was to reach “fair and wise” outcomes, i.e. outcomes that could be objectively judged as “good”. This has been interpreted by many that emotions have no part to play in well conducted negotiations.

Great negotiators know that this is wrong. There are three reasons why negotiators have to be able to work with emotions. Failure to understand and master this will inevitably undermine a negotiators’ performance.

It has long been known that decisions are affected by emotions. Who has not regretted a decision taking in anger or when overly euphoric. More recent research has shown that decisions making is not only affected by emotions but that the ability to feel emotions is in fact essential to the decision making process. Early evidence for this came from work with brain-damaged patients where the damage was located only in those parts of the brain involved with emotions. Many of these patients were incapable of taking decisions despite retaining their full analytical faculties. Some of these patients simply could not decide what to do or what was better when given simple choices because it turns out that even basic concepts such as “good/bad” or “better/worse” had an emotional component. After all – we like good and dislike bad.

Experienced negotiators know that if they help their counterparts feel “good” about the agreement and concessions traded in the course of a negotiation they are more likely to achieve better outcomes. Failure to do so may either result in a failure to obtain the concession wanted or even to reach agreement altogether. Alternatively if the other party does not feel good about an agreement they will often look for an excuse or reason to renege or cheat on the agreement. Experienced negotiators know that a negotiated agreement is only any good if both sides keep to their part of the bargain (assuming nothing material has changed). So they need to understand and work with the emotions of the other side.

The second reason why understanding and working with emotions is an essential skill is that negotiators need to develop an awareness of their own emotional state during the preparations and the conduct of a negotiation. One of the symptoms and causes of certain mental illnesses is an inability to acknowledge or experience emotions. Negotiators intending to retain their sanity cannot ignore their emotions, especially any that emerge during the course of a negotiation. Typically the tougher or important the negotiation the higher the likelihood for strong emotions to emerge. These emotions should not be allowed to run their course unchecked – but experienced negotiators will recognise them and will take the necessary actions to avoid decisions and the negotiation process from becoming unduly influenced by these.

One of the elements of good negotiation management is signalling to the other side whether their actions are likely to lead towards or away from an agreement. Warmly appreciating a concession made by the other side displays positive emotions (pleasure, happiness, etc.) that is likely to encourage all but the most unemotional to come up with further concessions. Genuine (appropriate) anger at a negative behaviour such as threatening or breaking a commitment is likely to deter most from repeating such actions.

The final reason for working with emotions is that used appropriately they can be a powerful influencing or even manipulative tool. I regular observe that some negotiators are extremely good at extracting amazing concessions from their counterparts by working at the emotional level. These negotiators know exactly when to get personal, cajole, plead or just work that guilt complex. Often their victims do not even realise how much emotional pressure these negotiators exert on them because these are applied so skilfully. Emotional negotiators can be highly charming and appear to have nothing but warm feelings for their negotiation counterparts. Such emotional negotiators are often far more difficult opponents to manage then the archetypical “hardball” negotiator that most of our negotiation workshop attendees tend to fear. Often they are the most dangerous to underestimate.

So next time you feel emotional in a negotiation or during the preparations ask yourself why that might be. Have you been triggered to feel good or bad? Was it appropriate? What might happen if you gave into that emotion? Also ask yourself how you can make the other side feel good about the particular concession you are asking for or intending to give, or how they could be made to feel bad about not giving you what you want. If you do so you may find some surprising answers and options for getting to a better outcome. But remember – emotions in negotiation are no substitute for rational thinking and good preparations – they are an important complement.

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