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Why negotiating will always be emotional

“This is straightforward, we’ll have a deal in ten minutes”, the participant confidently stated (just before the start of one of our commercial conflict scenarios). Forty-five minutes later, the teams were even further away from an agreement than when they started. During the review afterwards, it was clear that both parties went into the discussions with co-operative mindsets - emotions like ‘focused’, ‘relaxed’ and ‘interested’ were commonly registered by both sides. By the end however, these emotions were replaced with ‘angry’, ‘frustrated’ and ‘irritated’ – and the result? No deal was reached.

In our review we concluded that both sides had stopped listening effectively, they weren’t asking enough intelligent questions and had ignored new valuable information. The increasing intensity of their emotions had stunted their ability to negotiate effectively resulting in a competitive stalemate on both sides.

We can often be affected by stimulus within our communications that evoke an emotion, affecting the way we subsequently behave (Why haven’t they paid X? Why won’t they talk about Y? Why should we accept Z?).

Claire (not her real name) is a shining example of this. At the time Claire was a senior member of a 12 strong retail-team who attended a course a colleague and I were running. From the outset, the atmosphere on the course seemed a little strange, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As the days progressed, Claire became increasingly vocal during lecture inputs and more competitive in her approach and style within the scenarios. It reached a point where other members of the team were looking exasperated.

Being the diligent tutors that we were, we gave honest feedback about competitive and cooperative behaviour in the group session that followed. At the end of the course, Claire came to see us – she was visibly upset saying that she was embarrassed, wasn’t very good at negotiating and that she would now have to resign (this type of feedback has never happened before or after I have to add!). As tutors, we calmed her down, highlighted the positives and gave her some points to work on.

Two weeks later, my colleague received a call from Claire’s boss, who asked him to come to a meeting. After the initial chit chat the boss said, “You need to tell me what you did to Claire”. The immediate emotion my colleague experienced was ‘fear’. Rather than defending our position, my colleague took a moment and instead asked, “What do you mean?”. The boss candidly told him that Claire had been under-performing for some time and that he was considering starting her on a performance improvement plan. On returning from the course however, she was a changed person – proactive, structured, and more creative. My colleague’s response? (After an internal deep sigh of relief) “It’s all part of the service”.

  • Claire’s stimulus was potentially losing her job; this generated ‘fear’ (her emotion) which resulted in her competitive behaviour on the course.

  • My colleague’s stimulus was being asked an unexpected question, he also experienced ‘fear’ (his emotion) but by deliberately slowing things down and asking questions he was able to resist potentially competitive (defensive) behaviour e.g., “It wasn’t our fault”, “She was difficult”, etc.

We can’t change the emotions we experience (regardless of what some training providers might suggest – it really isn’t possible to just ‘strip them out’). We can however change the relationship between the emotions we experience and the choice we make about how we ‘feel’ about them – this then impacts on how we behave. Likewise, if we can empathise with others’ emotions, we can seek to influence their behaviour in a similar way.

Asking questions, taking breaks and reappraising the situation are all ways we can break our association with a stimulus and negative past events.

This leaves us free to try and achieve our objectives using more constructive negotiating behaviour – who knows, you may even get the deal secured within ten minutes after all!

Sam Macbeth, 6th September 2022

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