6 Tips to Handle Your Emotions in Negotiation

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Because negotiation involves people, it inevitably involves emotions. What are the best ways to deal with these emotions in negotiation and make a successful deal?

There are six crucial tips to keep in mind when negotiating. These principles will allow you to benefit from positive emotions while avoiding the stalemates that can come from negative emotions in negotiation.

The Inevitability of Emotions in Negotiation

In a negotiation, you may be dealing with an institution, company, or organization, but besides the entity, you’re dealing with human beings who have different backgrounds, values, biases, and emotions.

The human aspect of emotions in negotiation can be both a plus and a minus. People misunderstand and misinterpret things, which can reinforce the other side’s misgivings or spark negative reactions. On the other hand, a good working relationship, and the positive emotions that foster it, can help negotiations go smoothly. Also, people’s desire to be liked and respected may make them more considerate.

In any case, handling people sensitively and respectfully is a prerequisite for successful negotiation. Continually ask yourself whether you’re giving enough consideration to emotions in negotiations.

Substance Versus Relationship

Negotiators are always dealing with two issues: the substance of the negotiations and the relationship between the two sides. Both issues are important. For instance, a store owner wants to make a profit on a sale (substance), but also create a return customer by sending her away happy the first time (relationship). If he overcharges, he may make a profit, but he’ll damage his relationship with the customer and she may not return. The first issue has little to do with emotions in negotiations, but emotion plays a huge part in the second issue.

Most negotiations involve a long-term relationship that’s important to maintain. For instance, union members and bosses must be able to work together for a strong company bottom line and job stability. In some instances, the relationship may be more important than the immediate negotiated results. This is why it’s so important to address emotions in negotiations.

Because the relationship involves people and their emotions, it gets intertwined with the substance of the negotiations. For example, you may think you’re simply pointing out a problem (“The warehouse is a mess”), but someone on the other side may take it as a personal attack or blaming. Or, when people hear comments on substance, they may infer something negative about the speaker’s attitude toward them. We often conflate problems and people without realizing we’re doing it.

Positional bargaining tends to pit people against each other — someone’s tough position can be taken to mean she doesn’t care about the relationship or the other person. This deepens the problems that can come from emotions in negotiations.

However, dealing with differences of substance needn’t conflict with having a good relationship if the parties are committed to treating substance and relationship separately, each on its merits. For instance, deal with hurt feelings or anger directly rather than trying to appease the aggrieved person by making a concession on substance. Use psychological techniques, such as testing assumptions, educating, giving people an opportunity to vent, and improving communications.

Tips for Dealing with Emotions in Negotiations

People come to negotiations with strong feelings: they know that much is at stake and they may already feel defensive or threatened. One side’s emotions will generate a response from the other side. Emotions can create an impasse or end negotiations. Here are some ways to keep this from happening:

  1. Be aware of the emotions on both sides. Start by assessing your own feelings and those of others on your side. Write down what you feel and what you’d like to feel. Do the same for the other side. Listen to get a sense of what they feel. Treat them as humans with feelings, not hired guns for their organization. Consider what’s generating the emotions; why do people feel as they do?
  2. Pay attention to five underlying concerns. Emotions in negotiations are typically driven by five interests. Addressing these factors can create a positive climate while ignoring or undermining them generates counterproductive responses:
    • Autonomy: the ability to make choices and control what happens to you.
    • Appreciation: feeling valued and respected.
    • Affiliation: desire to be accepted by peers.
    • Role: having a meaningful function or purpose
    • Status: having your role and value acknowledged.
  3. Avoid threats to identity or self-image. We each have self-perceptions involving what we’re good at and what kind of person we are (for instance, “I’m a reasonable person,” or “I’m a good manager”). We feel threatened when people point out our inconsistencies and flaws and we may get angry. When you get the feeling you’ve “stepped in something” during a conversation, you may have threatened someone’s identity. Rephrase your point or revise your approach.
  4. Talk openly with the other side about their emotions. Talk about your own emotions too. Acknowledge the emotions as legitimate. With emotions acknowledged, negotiations can be less reactive and more proactive; people can more easily focus on the substantive issues with emotions out of the way.
  5. Allow the other side to vent, without reacting. As noted above, people get relief from expressing their emotions and grievances. Don’t react to an emotional outburst and don’t interrupt  — just sit and listen. However, try establishing a rule of letting only one person vent at a time (so others don’t respond and pull the conversation off track).
  6. Use small gestures to affirm others. Small actions — such as giving someone a rose after a quarrel — acknowledge and defuse emotions or ease a hostile environment. In the context of negotiations, useful constructive gestures may include shaking hands, eating together, a note of sympathy, or an apology. An apology can have a huge impact even when you don’t take personal responsibility. These gestures don’t cost you anything and greatly improve the atmosphere.

When you take steps to honor the positive emotions in negotiations and prevent or mitigate the negative emotions, you’re far more likely to negotiate successfully.

6 Tips to Handle Your Emotions in Negotiation

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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