The Role of Emotions in Negotiation


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Emotions are an unavoidable part of being human. And, are a part of every negotiation. When we recognize that someone else is interfering with our achieving our goals or preventing us from getting what we want, emotions often spring forth. Conflict becomes the inevitable result.

Perceived threats or signs of disrespect cause emotions to blaze. The intensity of the emotion connotes its importance to us. Thus the more important the situation and the stronger we feel about it, the more likely the conflict can turn destructive.

Yet, most of what has been written about negotiation suggests that emotions can be ignored or approached as a rational problem. Emotions are to be "managed" or "vented" when absolutely necessary and then ignored. This is often because it is easier to discuss substantive issues then to discuss wounded pride or feelings of anxiety. Doing so is sometimes seen as an act of weakness.

Our emotions have their origin in our evolution. Negative emotions like fear and anger helped humans to flee or fight predators. However, things have changed and these emotions might not be as useful when confronting the modern world.

Feelings and emotions very significantly influence how people deal with conflict. Think about some of the long standing conflicts in the world like Rwanda, Kosovo, the Israelis and Palestinians, or the abortion debate. In each case the disputants have extremely strong emotions that have impeded the resolution of the conflict. It can be seen in how the parties portray themselves - pro-life, not anti abortion; pro-choice, not pro abortion. Each is tied to a world view that generates strong emotion about the issue.

People have emotional needs, such as being treated fairly, or receiving recognition for what they do, or having a sense of belonging. Think about this example, you and your spouse have been looking for a clock for your living room wall for quite some time without success. One day as you are walking to work you glance in a store window and see the exact clock you've been looking for with a price tag of $500. You go home and tell your spouse who agrees but says, "don't pay one cent more than $400." Next day you go to the store and ask to see the clock. After discussing its merits with owner you offer $400 for it, and the owner says, "sold."

Are you happy? After all you got what you wanted at the price you wanted. But two things are causing you concern. The first question you have is - what's wrong with the clock? After all the owner wanted $500 and was quick to take your offer making you suspicious. The second problem you have is - have I gotten a good deal? If the owner took $400 so quickly, maybe s/he would have taken $350, or $300. It is possible to get exactly what you want and yet still be unhappy.

Emotions are often part of the group of intangible needs we have in a negotiation. We always want to feel we have gotten a good deal. We want to be listened too and feel our opinions and concerns are valid. These are a few examples. But a negotiation that doesn't take these into account will likely fail either at the table or when implementing the agreement.

Emotions play a part in helping us make sense of our world and our place in it. People continually assess events to determine if they are personally relevant. The assessments and understandings are infused with emotions and feelings. Emotions are not just a by product of conflict, but also the frame through which each party understands and defines the dispute.

Emotions have the potential to play a positive or negative role depending on a variety of circumstances. The decision of whether to settle or not rests partly on emotional factors. It isn't necessary to overcome every obstacle to reach a settlement. There need to be enough incentives to make settlement appear to be the best option. And emotion can overcome logic in making this determination. For instance, if you or the other side are not emotionally invested in the negotiation, it is unlikely to succeed. Examples of emotional rewards include: increased trust, improved relationship, feelings of satisfaction or appreciation, or a sense of belonging.

Positive emotions increase your chances for reaching agreement. Negotiators experiencing positive emotions during the process use less aggressive tactics, are more creative, show respect for others' perspectives and even improved cognitive ability. Those who experience empathy tend to facilitate and improve communication as well.

Conversely negative feelings have a damaging impact. And, the process itself can create or increase the bad feelings if rudeness or misrepresentation or challenges to our authority is perceived -- resulting in one party becoming antagonistic or wanting revenge for the perceived slights. These feelings can obstruct discussion and make it difficult to proceed in a constructive way.

The two most common negative emotions that impact negotiation are anger and fear.

Anger disrupts negotiations in three ways:

  1. Causes a loss of trust thus clouding our objectivity;

  2. Narrow the focus from broader topics to the anger-producing behavior; and

  3. Misdirects the goal from reaching agreement to getting even.

It is important to deal with anger directly and constructively. Responding to anger with anger never produces a positive result. Sometimes we need to just vent. Freed from the burden of unexpressed anger we can then move forward constructively. Never underestimate the power of an apology in negotiation. Acknowledging the source of the anger and apologizing for any action, however unintentional, will often cause it to quickly defuse. Or try some modest concession. It is also important to help the other side "save face" after an angry outburst.

Fear can come from feeling overwhelmed, unprepared or surprised. Feeling the fear is one thing, showing it is another. Recognize that fear is a natural response and use the heightened awareness that it brings. But never show it! Practice projecting confidence. Fake it till you make it. After awhile you will actually begin to feel the confidence you are projecting. Also recognize that fear can lead you to accept a poor but hasty agreement just to get things over with. Giving into this temptation always backfires.

When confronted with strong emotion, try taking a "time out" to let each side re-group, or try re-scheduling. You can acknowledge what you believe to be true, i.e. "you seem upset, can you tell me why?" What never react in kind. Let it pass over or around you. By getting the anger out you have a chance to react and explain before things fester.

Remember anger expressed in a negotiation is generally not personal, although it sometimes feels that way.

For more information about negotiation, click on any of the links below.

To learn more about other conflict resolution topics, click on any of the links below.


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