Emotional Intelligence in Negotiation

The value of emotional intelligence in negotiation has been widely touted yet underexplored. Despite its many benefits, there are likely downsides to emotional intelligence in negotiation that need to be considered.

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emotional intelligence in negotiation

You feel a little nervous during your first meeting with a new colleague, Steve, to negotiate a long-term project to be co-managed by your respective divisions, but he immediately puts you at ease. Warm and friendly, he makes it clear he’s highly motivated to reach an arrangement that will help both divisions. When talks grow difficult, Steve openly addresses the issues that crop up.

As your admiration for Steve’s social and communication skills grows, you recognize in him the hallmarks of emotional intelligence in negotiation. Thanks to your strong rapport, you’re confident you will breeze to the finish line with a new business relationship and amazing results. Or will you?

In 1995, psychologist Daniel Goleman’s bestseller Emotional Intelligence burst into the cultural imagination and spawned a new field of study. Leaders dared to hope that fostering emotional intelligence could solve a range of problems, from school bullying to low morale to international conflict, writes Adam Grant in the Atlantic.

Experts predicted a positive impact of emotional intelligence in negotiations. After all, the qualities that characterize emotional intelligence—awareness of our emotions and how they affect others, the ability to regulate our moods and behavior, empathy, the motivation to meet meaningful personal goals, and strong social skills—seem as if they’d be highly useful in negotiation.

But research suggests the benefits of emotional intelligence in negotiation may be less clear-cut.


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High Rapport, So-So Gains

In a 2014 study of emotional intelligence and negotiation in the Negotiation Journal, researchers Kihwan Kim, Nicole L. A. Cundiff, and Suk Bong Choi examined whether the trait correlates with key negotiation outcomes, namely trust building, the desire to work together in the future, and joint gain.

The research team had about 200 undergraduate students fill out a questionnaire designed to measure emotional intelligence. At a later date, the students were paired and assigned to play the role of personnel manager or new employee in a negotiation over a job contract. They could negotiate issues such as salary, vacation, starting date, and medical coverage, and had opportunities to both create and claim value. Because points were assigned to the outcomes, the researchers could measure participants’ success objectively.

Perhaps not surprisingly, higher levels of emotional intelligence were associated with greater rapport within negotiating pairs. Strong rapport nurtured trust and a willingness to work with the other party again. Counterintuitively, however, high emotional intelligence was not linked to better joint negotiation outcomes.

Why didn’t emotionally intelligent negotiators better leverage their skills? Kim and his team speculated these negotiators’ sense of empathy may have led them to make excessive concessions at the expense of their own gains. Emotionally intelligent negotiators may be vulnerable to exploitation by their counterparts for this reason.

Strategies for Fine-Tuning Emotional Intelligence in Negotiation

Be aware of empathy’s limitations. In one study, negotiators who were naturally empathetic or encouraged to be empathetic were good at assessing the strength of their connections with others. However, empathy didn’t help them predict their counterparts’ moves in a strategic game.

Take time to cool off. If possible, postpone negotiations or call for a break when you are feeling strong negative emotions or detecting them in a counterpart. Anger can cause us to rely on stereotypes and make risky decisions, and sadness can cause us to make purchases we’ll later regret, research shows. We also tend to make excessive concessions to angry counterparts.

Beware the carryover effect. Feelings triggered by an outside event, such as an argument at home or a difficult commute, can linger and have a strong effect on our negotiations. Simply thinking about the source of your mood can help defuse any negative impact on performance.

Dangerously Persuasive?

Because the emotionally intelligent are excellent at reading others and communicating their own emotions productively, the trait can make people highly persuasive—with potentially negative implications for emotional intelligence and leadership.

As illustration, Grant describes two highly influential leaders of the 20th century who showed signs of keen emotional intelligence. In his electrifying speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. “chose language that would stir the hearts of his audience,” demonstrating “remarkable skill in managing his own emotions and in sparking emotions that moved his audience to action,” writes Grant. Now consider Adolf Hitler, who spent years honing his body language to enhance its emotional effects until he had become “an absolutely spellbinding public speaker,” according to historian Roger Moorhouse. The two men had polar-opposite values but were both persuasive communicators.

As the example of Hitler suggests, the better someone is at controlling their emotions and reading others’ feelings, the better equipped they are to manipulate others and persuade them to act against their best interests. Emotional intelligence enables people to “intentionally shape their emotions to fabricate favorable impressions of themselves,” write University of Cambridge professors Martin Kilduff and Jochen I. Menges, and Texas A&M professor Dan S. Chiaburu in an article in Research in Organizational Behavior.

Once portrayed as a universal balm for discord, emotional intelligence is being recognized as a skill that can be used for good or bad, suggests Grant. A keen emotional intellect can promote trust and long-term partnerships. But when used to manipulate or to prompt unnecessary concessions, emotional intelligence in negotiation may undermine the connections it is touted to enhance.

What other negotiation strategies and tactics have you found to be effective when dealing with difficult people?

Resource: “The Influence of Emotional Intelligence on Negotiation Outcomes and the Mediating Effect of Rapport: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach,” by Kihwan Kim, Nicole L. A. Cundiff, and Suk Bong Choi. Negotiation Journal, January 2014.

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