Volume 18, Number 6
September 2001


A Negotiator's Guide to Emotion
Four "Laws" to Effective Practice

By Daniel L. Shapiro

Many negotiators intensely focus on substantive matters, considering the potential costs and benefits of one proposal over another, this concession over that one. We presume that substantive gains represent the essence of good negotiation and that a singular attention to such matters is a wise maneuver that will maximize our success. We can forget, though, that our behavior and the behavior of others is in large part the result of the pushes and pulls of emotion. This article discusses four laws of emotion pertinent to effective negotiation.

Law number one is the Law of Perpetual Emotion: Emotions are a constant stream within us. During negotiation, we experience a whole range of affective currents, including impulses, emotions, moods, and attitudes. These four types of affective currents frequently interact with one another. To deal with this perpetual emotion, monitor the affective currents of the interaction. Awareness of emotions is critical to negotiation success; it increases the effectiveness and sustainability of your decisions and relationships. Don't immediately think of yourself as an emotionally omniscient negotiator or you will set yourself up for failure, as every interaction is filled with a complexity of affective currents. Use an incremental approach, gradually becoming more aware of the affective currents within your interactions.

Further, emotions often are hard to see at ground level. Step back from the situation at hand and imagine that you are watching from the balcony the negotiation on the stage. Observe the interaction and try to make sense of what the various parties are feeling and why.

Law number two is the Law of Emotional Complexity. During conflict situations, we often see the emotional terrain as having only one dimension-anger. Anger is our stereotypic interpretation of why people act the way they do in conflict. Instead, "complexify" the seemingly straightforward; think of the emotional world as multidimensional. Don't assume that you and others are simply angry. Brainstorm emotions that you or the other side might be experiencing but that are not immediately evident. Make a list of emotions in your schedule book and refer to it before, during, and after negotiations to reflect on the emotional terrain of the interaction. Realize that there is probably more going on than you think. Because of this element of the unknown, be careful not to draw negative character attributions too quickly.

Similarly, you are not always aware of all the issues and factors affecting you. On a personal level, what fears and wishes of yours manifest within the negotiation? What image of yourself do you want to convey? Consider these personal issues before negotiating, and be sensitive to their existence during the negotiation.

Law number three is the Law of Variable Expression, which states that our emotional expressions are not always an accurate depiction of our internal emotional state, and vice versa. In other words, our insides don't always match our outsides. This mismatch can be deliberate or unintentional. Sometimes we have an emotion pitted in our gut, and yet we mask its expression deliberately. We may subdue the expression of the emotion, or we may exaggerate it. However, emotions often slip out unintentionally. In some interactions, we express our emotions minimally, but they represent important emotional messages. Because our insides and outsides don't always match, it's not a safe bet to assume how others feel just from what they tell you or how they express their ideas. Develop ideas about their emotional state only after gathering information from multiple sources, including body posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Another important source of information is self-reports about how they feel. Ask them questions such as, "How do you feel about the proposal as it stands?" When you ask how they feel, make sure you get a "feeling" answer and not a descriptive one. Consider the following dialogue between two colleagues who work closely together on negotiation projects:

  • Mort: "How'd you feel about the meeting?"
  • Jen: "I thought that most of the people in the meeting found our presentation helpful."

In this dialogue, Jen does not respond directly to Mort's question. Instead of responding about how she personally feels about the meeting, she describes her general "thought" of the meeting. This information paints Jen as an observer of the meeting rather than as an active, involved subject. These thoughts do not give Mort insight into her personal evaluation of the meeting. Compare Jen's previous response with this one:

  • Jen: "I was surprised that most of the people found our meeting helpful. Going into the meeting, I was worried that the boss was going to shoot our ideas down. I'm relieved that he didn't."

Notice the qualitative difference between the two dialogues. In the second set, a much richer picture of the negotiation emerges, in which Jen reflects on some of her emotional experiences, including surprise, worry, and relief. This emotional information improves negotiation effectiveness. It enhances the coordination of the negotiators, who can function more smoothly because each has a better "sense" of the other's sensitivities and emotional inclinations.

The emotional information also provides parties with qualitative data about the success of the negotiation process. What are the concerns of the various individuals involved in your negotiation? To what degree do you feel that those concerns have been addressed? By discussing with others emotional reactions about your negotiation, you can learn a lot about the delicate, subtle issues hidden within a seemingly straightforward interaction.

Further, because in many conflicts it is difficult to determine just how upset or tense disputants feel, a simple tool is to take the "emotional temperature" of the room. If mediating, ask disputants to rate how tense or upset they feel, on a scale of one to ten. Even if you are negotiating rather than mediating, give the other party your temperature, and ask them to share theirs. Taking the temperature allows you to discover when things are too hot to handle, necessitating a break to allow time for decompression. It also allows you to find out the other's emotional state.

A surprising amount of the time, people inaccurately assess others' feelings. As the Law of Variable Expression suggests, people are quite good at hiding their true emotional states, and they are not the best at detecting others' "true" emotional states. Taking the temperature can help you overcome this detection hurdle.

Law number four is the Law of Diagnostic Clarity. Psychologists often recommend that to cope with a particularly strong emotion, such as anger, we should ask ourselves why we feel that way. What few psychologists realize, though, is that the question has two potential types of answers, each of which is important to evaluate. First, we need to understand the cause of our emotion. The cause represents the sources of influence that prompted our current emotional experience. Second, it's helpful to understand the function of our emotion. For what purpose are we experiencing the emotion? Learn from your emotional signals. Specific issues call for your attention, and your emotions signal these issues. Once you identify problematic emotions being experienced, consider potential causes of the emotions.

Causes of problematic emotions often relate to not enough decision-making leverage, perceived lack of respect, not enough room to speak your mind, and not feeling appreciated. After you identify potential causes of problematic emotions, work to address them. Recognize the functions of your emotions and deal with them (e.g., guilt functions to prompt an apology). Look beneath others' expressed emotion at the message the emotion represents. Are they trying to express that a particular behavior will not be tolerated at the mediation table? Or are they expressing that they are frustrated? Likewise, look beneath your own emotional experiences at the message the emotion represents. What message is your own anger, excitement, or shame trying to express? How might you use that message toward constructive ends?

Daniel L. Shapiro is an associate at the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School and a research fellow in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 3 of Dispute Resolution, Winter 2001 (7:2).

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