Leading Blog






02.04.19

Simple Techniques to Overcome Negative Emotions When Negotiating with Others

Overcome Negative Emotions

A KEY PREDICTOR of entrepreneurial success is a leader’s ability to manage relationships with investors, employees, and customers. Relationships are negotiations. We all negotiate. How well we learn to negotiate can be the difference between success and failure.

Entrepreneurs who can negotiate well are better equipped to deal with the challenges they face in relationships significant to their business.

Here we will look at one aspect of successful negotiating: our emotions.

The mishandling of emotions – especially tension and mistrust – is a major source of errors when negotiating. It can lead to miscommunication, misjudging the other party’s motives, inability to reach consensus, and more. In our book Entrepreneurial Negotiation, we explain that the best way to diffuse negative emotions is to prevent them from escalating in the first place.

Diffuse Tension Before It Escalates

At the beginning of every negotiation, there is a natural tension in the air. The higher the stakes, the higher the tension level. To diffuse it, open by conveying your sincerity and warmth with a handshake, eye contact, and a smile, as appropriate.

Other ways of reducing tension in the first few minutes are sharing airtime while projecting genuine interest, showing respect and asking for agreement on some small initial ground-rule (e.g., use of first or last names, seating arrangements, etc.).

A 2004 experiment using sociometric badges in a mock negotiation (between a corporate vice president and a middle manager) demonstrated that “tone of voice” used by participants in the first five minutes predicted more than a third of the variation in the objective and subjective outcome of a negotiation. They also found that turn-taking dynamics (who speaks when) had a strong correlation with the subjective value levels reported after the negotiation.

Still, other studies showed that similarity, also called affiliation, is a primary factor that influences personal human connection – the building of rapport between individuals. Rapport reduces stress and is the best predictor of success in relationships. As a negotiation proceeds to more difficult topics, good negotiators maintain a relaxed tone (with the appropriate level of seriousness) while respecting their counterpart’s autonomy and status.

The Power of Humor, Stories, and Metaphors

Several additional tools that are often used to reduce stress are storytelling, metaphors, and humor. The appropriate use of humor, especially, can serve as a release valve for negative emotions such as anxiety, suspicion, and anger, and can create room for people to put things in perspective. Humor can also serve as a way of acknowledging the absurdity of the moment, where parties have inadvertently locked themselves into extreme positions. Humor does need to be used carefully. If a party doesn’t understand an attempt at humor, they may be left wondering if the joke is on them. If they feel as if they are the target (or that they are being taken lightly), it will most likely make the situation worse. Finding the right balance between humor and serious intent can make it easier to deal with escalating competitive behavior.

Stories have the power to convey an important idea, stimulate a strong emotional response, and allow a release of political or interpersonal tension. They help to shift everyone’s focus from the tension in the room to the tension in the story. At the conclusion, when the story’s tension is finally released – both the listeners and the storyteller experience a stress-reducing feeling. Our brains react to stories the same way they react to true events.

Using metaphors is also effective. For example, in negotiating the break-up of a business, framing the situation as a pile of cash to be divided creates a “divide the pie” metaphor. This is likely to induce a win-lose mindset. Using a story about a “cash cow” might shift the focus to a living creature that cannot be divided, but if taken care of will produce dividends over time. This second framing metaphor would more likely induce a collaborative discussion of how to share responsibilities and allocate future profits.

Apologize Quickly and Sincerely

If you realize you have done something that has hurt the other side, you should issue an apology immediately. It is rarely to your advantage to provoke feelings of fear, anger or resentment. A sincere apology can often restore a better working context. Apology is a social ritual that shows respect and empathy to the offended person. While you cannot undo a mistake, an apology can help the other side move on. This is the opposite of what happens when a person is emotionally triggered. Experiments show that receiving an apology reduces heart rate, breathing rate, sweat levels, facial tension, and blood pressure.

Apologizing quickly and sincerely shows that you take responsibility for your actions. On your side, it can also prevent a buildup of remorse or shame caused by the fact that you hurt someone or simply as a result of having made an error. It is not easy, and quite humbling to apologize, but when done correctly it projects the inner strength of someone who is confident and aware of the feelings of others.

Even when you apologize immediately, don’t rush things. It takes time for impacted emotions to wash over the other side. The body needs time to recover and to switch from fear, anger, and anxiety to empathy and compassion. Be present and attentive. Accept the silence as OK, and don’t move on prematurely. You may need to repeat your apology, since it may not have been fully heard or absorbed the first time. Focus on your counterpart’s reactions. Wait for them to indicate that it is OK to continue.

Some mistakes are minor, and it will be easier for the other side to recover from these, even without an apology. Some will require both sides to cool off before continuing. After you have apologized and demonstrated your sincere intent to remedy the situation, you may want to revisit the item that was on the agenda when you made the mistake initially. Ask for a “do-over.” This is the ultimate “detect and respond” response: an “on-the-spot” apology that is accepted, coupled with permission to return to the negotiation.

Negotiations are fraught with tensions. Learning to reduce tension and negative emotions creates a better outcome for everyone.

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Leading Forum
This post is by Samuel Dinnar and Lawrence Susskind, co-authors of Entrepreneurial Negotiation: Understanding and Managing the Relationships that Determine Your Entrepreneurial Success. They are both experts in negotiation and mediation, teach at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and at MIT, and have experience as entrepreneurs, executives, consultants, and mediators. To learn more, visit www.entrepreneurialnegotiation.com.

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