Negotiation Lesson #4: “When Emotions Threaten to Derail Negotiations: Focus on Process not Substance”

July 21, 2016 By Irma Tyler Wood

This is the fourth blog in my series, titled, “10 Negotiation Lessons.”  Lessons 1-3 have advised you to “Always Test Assumptions,” “Address Elephants and Red Flags Early,” and “Make the Invisible Visible.” Today’s lesson deals with emotions.

A goal I hear most often when teaching negotiation skills is, “I want to learn how to get rid of emotion.”  If you’ve ever been involved in a negotiation where parties yelled, cursed, threatened or abruptly stormed out of the room, you can understand that sentiment.  However, it is impossible to get rid of emotions, they come with being human and in fact are essential to being effective in negotiations.  I think what people really want to learn is how to manage emotions, their own and those of the people they are negotiating with.  Here are a few simple process rules that not only serve to prevent emotions from getting out of hand, but can help you know how to respond when they do. 

  1. Establish ground rules for the negotiation before you begin negotiating about anything.  Ground rules should address communication and relationship protocols, what to do when surprised, what to do when conflict arises, who to call when either side feels an agreement has been broken, etc.
  2. If you know in advance that there are highly contentious issues that are likely to evoke strong emotions during the negotiations, raise them when you are planning the negotiation process.  In the very first session when you are deciding on the issues to be discussed, the schedule of the negotiations, where to meet, who should be at the table, etc., say something like, “The issue of _________ always raises strong emotions on both sides of the table.  What can we do to prevent that from derailing our negotiations?” or, “_________ always seem to provoke strong reactions from your team, can you help me understand why?”  Once you understand why, then working with the other party develop some helpful ground rules for dealing with emotional issues.  Examples of such ground rules might be, when we discuss highly emotional issues, the following ground rules go into effect:  one person speaks at a time, no interruptions, etc. 
  3. By far the most, difficult situations come when you are surprised by a sudden outburst of emotion, your own or that of the other party.  The most important thing to do when that happens is to move from talking about the substance (what you want) to talking about the process (how you are talking about what you want).
    1. If ground rules are being broken, refer back to the ground rules.  Ask whether we need to change or amend them.  Appoint a facilitator to monitor the group’s adherence to the ground rules. 
    2. Name the behavior.  For example, if Bob yells and pounds the table about an issue, don’t respond by continuing to talk about the issue, talk about the emotion you see or feel.  For example, you might say, “Bob, it’s clear you are really upset about this, is there something we’ve said or done that’s provoked such strong feeling?”  Or, “Bob, I’m surprised that this has produced such strong feelings in the room, tell us/me more about why this is so important to you.”
    3. If Bob’s behavior has provoked strong emotion in you, you might say, Bob, “When you yell I tend to get defensive, that won’t be helpful to these negotiations.  I’d like to take a 10 minute break to calm down and think about how we go forward. 
  4. If the other side is using the expression of emotion as a tactic, you will see a pattern emerging during the negotiations.
    1. Ask for a caucus and discuss with your team, who should address the tactic and how to discuss it.
    2. If you are negotiating alone and see repeated emotional outbursts, first say, “Time out, I want to discuss how we are discussing this issue.” Or, “I want to set the substantive issue of _____ aside for a moment.”  Then, name the pattern you see by describing the specific behaviors and their impact on you or the negotiations.  For example, “Mary, I notice every time we deal with an issue that involves__________, you imply that I am lying or you roll your eyes or simply shut down and stop talking.  What’s going on?  You don’t behave this way when we discuss other issues, why does ____ produce such strong emotion for you?”  Or, “Your concerns seem legitimate, the way you are choosing to handle them makes it harder for me to listen or be persuaded.  I’d like to talk about a better way to get your real concerns on the table.”   

There are times when it is not only appropriate to feel negative emotions in a negotiation, it is also appropriate to express them.  The issue is how you express them.  The goal is managing emotions, yours or theirs, so they don’t control you or the negotiations.  When emotions threaten to derail your negotiation, focus on process, communication and relationship by using the above described practices.  Ki ThoughtBridge’s Constructive Conflict Management Kit gives more information about managing emotions in negotiations.