How to Manage Emotions in Negotiations

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

“Let’s leave our emotions out of this and think rationally.” How many of us have heard – or said – some version of this statement during a negotiation or difficult conversation? Here’s the issue: not only is it impossible to remove emotions from our negotiations, but it is also not a good idea to do so. Our emotions point out what is important to us, and they can help us define and articulate our interests. If we avoid those topics that make us feel emotional, we are likely to leave value on the table in our negotiations.

Why do people suggest avoiding emotions in negotiations? Common thinking suggests that emotions impact our ability to make rational decisions. However, recent research provides some evidence that our emotions can actually be useful to our decision making process. For instance, we assume that anger has a negative impact on our ability to make quality, rational decisions. After all, anger impacts our assessment of risk and promotes increased risk-taking behavior. But in situations where risk aversion is detrimental – say, for an entrepreneur who needs to invest capital into an idea – anger can have a positive impact on decision-making outcomes.

Of course, emotions can also have a negative impact on our ability to make rational decisions. Anger may urge us to take thoughtful risks in some situations, but it may push us too far in other situations, causing us to say things we later regret or take actions that are not in our best interests. Rather than categorizing emotions as positive or negative, we must simply recognize that we will always feel emotions. Normalizing our emotional reactions helps us to manage their effects, and it allows us to utilize and manage them productively moving forward.

Understand your physical responses to stressors

Too often, we recognize that our emotions are affecting us during negotiations only after we act upon those emotions. Someone says something inflammatory or makes an offer you find offensive, and before you know it, you are yelling. Maybe you immediately walk away. Maybe you shut down and stop engaging. Everyone reacts differently to different emotions, so it is important to understand your own reactions.

The first step is to spend time thinking about your specific physical responses to emotional stressors. Think back to a negotiation where your emotions had a negative impact on the conversation or on your actions. As your emotions built, how did you feel? Did your heart rate tick up? Did your breathing feel more shallow or labored? Understanding the way you react immediately to different emotions helps build your awareness.

With this awareness, you can diagnose your emotional reactions in the moment and move forward strategically. Perhaps you have a tendency to raise your voice when you feel frustrated. As you feel frustration building in a negotiation, you will be more aware of your physical reaction. With this in mind, you can buy yourself time to respond strategically and avoid raising your voice reactively.

Buy time to respond rather than react

Our colleague Moshe Cohen, who teaches negotiation and leadership at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, developed a tool called the emotional response curve to highlight how our emotions impact our cognitive abilities in negotiation. In the immediate moment we feel a strong emotional reaction, our ability to respond logically or rationally dramatically decreases. The stronger the intensity of the emotion, the stronger the impact it has on our cognitive abilities.

The only cure for this problem? Time. As time passes, the intensity of our emotions decreases, and our cognitive abilities have a chance to catch back up. So how can we buy ourselves this necessary time in negotiations?

  • Use silence:     Silence is a powerful negotiation tool, but it also makes many people uncomfortable. Fearful of silence feeling awkward or misplaced, we lean away from it. However, successful negotiators and communicators recognize the power of thoughtful silence. In the immediate aftermath of an emotional trigger, choosing silence gives your logical reasoning some time to catch up with your emotional reaction. It can be helpful to keep notes for this reason – take a moment to look down and review them in order to buy yourself some valuable time. If silence still makes you uncomfortable, you can be transparent and let your negotiation counterpart know that you need a moment to think and review before proceeding.
  • Summarize and shift:     You can also buy yourself time to think about how you want to respond by summarizing what you heard the other person say. For instance, if they make an offer that you find insulting and feel yourself getting angry that they don’t respect your worth, reframe the offer. You can also follow it up with another clarifying question that focuses on learning more about the other side’s interests. For instance: “So you are offering $1,000 for the entire project. Can you tell more about how you came to that number?” Shift the conversation away from your response, gain more information, and buy yourself some time to craft your response.
  • Postpone:    If your emotional response is so strong that momentary silences aren’t helping, consider postponing the negotiation. This can be as simple as requesting time to take a break, use the restroom, or make a phone call. Short postponements allow you to leave the room, breathe, and come back fresher. You can also explain that you need some time to think about the offer on the table or gather more information.

Prepare with another person

As we’ve advocated for before, preparing with another person can help prepare your negotiated outcomes. In a podcast interview with Harvard Business Review, Cohen echoes this sentiment and highlights the specific importance of preparing with another person if you anticipate an emotionally charged negotiation. We tend to get tunnel vision with heightened emotion, and talking about the situation with someone else can provide a fresh perspective. Prior to your negotiation, ask a colleague or friend to spend a few minutes talking through your approach.

If you enjoyed this article, consider checking out MWI’s blog post suggesting books to build on your negotiation skills. Want to build upon the negotiation skills you’ve read about? Contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org to learn more about how MWI can help you become a better negotiator.

Click Here to Improve Your Negotiation Skills!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email