Jonathan E. Pearl
Have you ever phoned someone furious, and ended up slamming the phone down on them? Did you then feel a little stupid – especially when it was you who made the call?
Often, when you are facing a tough conversation it can feel that you are out of control. As a result you might act out of a combination of negative emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, rage, despair, and sadness. These emotions can be overwhelming and lead to you acting irrationally, or ignoring good advice from others, or being overly influenced by others.
On the few occasions that I have lost my temper in a negotiation I have regretted it. Not least because I felt it made me appear ‘out of control’, irrational…dare I say ‘stupid’. It’s adding insult to injury when you also have to apologise for your bad behaviour. I recall a particularly awful transaction where the lead negotiator on the other side had consistently ‘pushed my buttons’. When I was sure the negotiation was at an end I took great pleasure in telling him to “have a nice life”. The only trouble was, a week later I was told by my boss to re-open our talks.
Worse than the possible embarrassment of 'losing it' is that displaying your emotions in negotiation can give your opponent tactical advantage in your discussions. Displays of strong emotion are vital clues to when you are ‘bluffing’, where your true bottom line is, or where valuable concessions can be gained.
That’s not to say that emotions should be banned from the negotiation table. On the contrary the odd display of emotion – especially anger – can be extremely productive.
A 2011 study (Filipowicz, Barsade, Melwani) in The Netherlands, demonstrated that using anger during a negotiation can lead to ‘better’ outcomes. And changing from a happy mood to a grumpy mood is more effective than staying angry from start to finish. According to the study, for the other side to give in to your demands:
Rising anger is more effective than static anger
Rising anger is more effective than either rising or static happiness
When you are across the table from someone who becomes very angry the most common feeling is one of fear. The fear is predominantly one of escalation. Your reptilian brain sees anger, even if it’s just verbal, as something that could ultimately escalate into a physical confrontation. Most people are conflict adverse, and the most natural reaction is to do something to defuse the conflict – often leading to the giving of concessions.
But using anger as a negotiation tool is risky. You might be opposite someone who is also prone to using anger as a negotiation tool. This can lead to escalation followed by an unpleasant deadlock. Showing anger is also risky if you need to have a relationship with the other party once the negotiation is over.
The best way to avoid 'losing it' or misjudging when to show some teeth is to plan ahead of time. Failing to prepare for any difficult conversation, especially a negotiation, is a mistake. You run the risk of being misunderstood, losing your temper, and possibly making a bad situation worse. So, be prepared before any difficult conversation. Ask yourself:
1. What’s the aim of the conversation? What do I hope to accomplish? What would be an ideal outcome?
You may think you have honourable goals: like coaching an employee or encouraging your teenage child, but if your language is overly critical or condescending you will come across as punishing, not supportive.
Be self-critical beforehand so that you enter the conversation on an equal footing – and don’t come across as condescending. Try writing the purpose down on paper. Once re-reading it you may decide not to bother after all!
2. What assumptions are you making about this person’s intentions?
You may be feeling intimidated, belittled, ignored, disrespected, or marginalised by the other party. But be cautious about assuming that that was their intention. Impact does not necessarily equal intent. You DON’T know what’s going on in someone else’s head, any more than they know what’s going on in yours.
Question your unconscious bias. Is there anything about this person, or their appearance, that might falsely lead you to believe they are aggressive, or disrespectful?
3. Are your “buttons” being pushed?
Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Take a look at your “backstory,” as they say in the movies. What personal history of yours is being triggered? And always remember: if you have a strong adverse reaction to the way someone is behaving, that’s USUALLY because the 'foul' behaviour they are displaying is stuff that you find unattractive in yourself.
After examining your own motivation you may still have the conversation, but you’ll go into it knowing that some of the heightened emotional state has to do with you.
4. How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it?
If you think this is going to be horribly difficult and awkward before you start, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come out of it, that will more likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.
5. Who is on the other side of the conversation?
What might they be thinking about this situation? Are they aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What are their needs and fears? What solution do you think they might suggest to resolve the problem?
Begin to reframe the opponent as your partner.
6. What are your needs and fears?
Are there any common concerns? Could there be?
7. How have you contributed to the problem?
How have they?