Get in the Right State of Mind for Any Negotiation

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Photo by Andrew Nguyen

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had a prickly relationship. On the one hand, their two companies did significant business with each other. (Microsoft actually wrote software for some Apple devices.) But the two men also were rivals, both in the marketplace and in the public spotlight. Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson described their relationship as “a scorpion dance, with both sides circling warily knowing that a sting by either could cause problems for both.”

Sometimes emotional flare-ups threated their collaboration. As Isaacson recounts in his book, Jobs was enraged, for example, when Microsoft was on the verge of launching Windows. He claimed that the new platform blatantly copied Apple’s graphic operating system (even though Apple had itself liberally borrowed programming developed earlier at Xerox, PARC).

Gates visited Apple headquarters in hopes of smoothing things out. Instead, Jobs excoriated him in front of Apple’s top management team. “You’re ripping us off,” he shouted. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!”

Gates didn’t yell back, though. Instead he sat calmly and offered another way of looking at the situation. “I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox,” he said, “and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out you had already stolen it.”

Gates’ poise — his ability to manage his own feelings in a high-pressure situation — exemplifies a key feature of emotional intelligence (EI). His own calm proved contagious. Jobs’ anger abated a bit in the meeting and then the two men discussed their differences privately in later conversations. Recalling the incident, Gates said, “I’m good at when people are emotional. I’m kind of less emotional.”

Note that Gates didn’t describe himself as unemotional. He obviously knows that feelings are important when dealing with other people, especially in a negotiation.

The heart of EI is self-awareness, the capacity to sense the first stirrings of anger or anxiety. That awareness, in turn, must be coupled with an understanding of what kindled that particular response. Depending on the situation, it might be something that another person has said or done. But if we dig deep enough, we sometimes see that our own attitudes are the real source of our visceral response.

Together with my colleagues Kimberlyn Leary and Julianna Pillemer, both of whom are psychologists, I’ve explored the thoughts and feelings that people bring to the bargaining table. We did in-depth interviews with seasoned negotiators, all with two or more decades of experience under their belts. (You can read more about our research in “Negotiating with Emotion.”)

Every person we interviewed expressed some degree of anxiety about negotiation. With a few subjects, it was only a minor concern, but with most it was the dominant emotion. And if you think about it, that’s not surprising.

  • People were concerned about the unpredictability of the process. Will it be easy to reach agreement or hard? Is an acceptable deal even possible?
  • Then there were worries about other people’s intentions. Win-win negotiation sounds great, people said, but what if the other party is a cutthroat?
  • Plus there was ample self-doubt. Even after sealing a deal, people wonder if they left money on the table — or pushed too hard and damaged a relationship.

Such feelings hamper effective negotiation. If anxiety isn’t properly managed, it can make you defensive — and lots of other bad things will follow. You may be reluctant to reveal your interests, for example, fearful of being exploited. And if you’re wary of others, you may be too quick to interpret an innocent question as a ploy. Most important, if you are tense and closed yourself, others may misread your defensiveness as hostility and prompt them to be defensive themselves. Tensions may escalate as a result.

We perform better if we can maintain the poise that Gates showed in his confrontation with Jobs. It’s not a matter of suppressing our emotions. That’s neither feasible nor desirable. After all, we care about the issues we negotiate. We want to argue passionately for those things we need and deserve. And we also need to be clear that when we say no to an unreasonable demand, we mean it. Instead of ignoring these important feelings, you have to be aware of them and not let them take over.

More fundamentally, we need to connect with others especially in long-term transactions. It’s hard to understand other people’s feelings if we haven’t grappled with our own. In short, preparing for negotiation requires more than simply reading draft contracts, running the numbers, and developing a good fallback. It requires emotional preparation, as well.

My colleague Amy Cuddy has demonstrated in her ground-breaking research how our posture not only reflects our feelings, but how we carry ourselves directly influences hormone levels, which in turn shape our feelings. Emotions flow both to and from our bodies. Standing tall for just two minutes — adopting a “power pose,” as Amy calls it — lowers cortisol, which is strongly associated with anxiety.

Our thoughts shape feelings, as well. A study by another colleague — Allison Wood Brooks — suggests that simple words we tell ourselves have a powerful impact. She made subjects anxious by telling them that they would have to sing along with a Karaoke machine in front of an impassive stranger. On hearing the task, people’s heart rates jumped up markedly.

But before they began to sing, she instructed them to say a three-word sentence. Half were told to say, “I am anxious.” The other half said, “I am excited.” Those who said “excited” significantly out-performed those who said “anxious.” Allison suggests that rather than trying to calm yourself down when feeling anxious, re-channel that energy so that you can lean into the task at hand.

Amy and Allison’s findings are important in their own right. They offer specific techniques for reducing stress and fostering presence. Their work reminds also us that even though we can’t ever command how a negotiation goes (other parties will have their own agendas and attitudes), we still can lighten our own emotional baggage. It’s fine, in short, to have strong feelings when we negotiate. The trick is not to allow those feelings to have us.

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