October 23, 2018
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.
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.
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how MWI can help you become a better negotiator.