How Expressing Disappointment Impacts Offers in Negotiations

By on / Dispute Resolution

Most of us have had the experience of feeling disappointment during a negotiation. If a counterpart picks up on this disappointment, will it affect the offers she makes?

Professor Gert-Jan Lelieveld of Leiden University and his colleagues considered this question in a recent study. In four experiments, college students were assigned to play a simple negotiating game with an opponent. Before playing the game, the students answered general questions about their approach to bargaining, such as how important they considered their own outcomes to be. The (fictional, unbeknown to the students) counterpart expressed either disappointment or anger in response to the students’ answers.


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Across the experiments, the students viewed counterparts’ apparent anger as a sign of strength and their seeming disappointment as a sign of weakness. Students responded to angry reactions by making generous offers, apparently because the anger conveyed toughness.

By contrast, the way that students responded to counterparts’ disappointment varied depending on the situation. When students were more closely tied to their counterparts—by virtue of being told that they attended the same university, for example— they made more generous offers out of a sense of guilt. But when they felt little affiliation with a counterpart, they felt less guilt and made tougher offers.

The results suggest that expressing disappointment can be a double-edged sword in negotiation. When your counterpart feels a sense of affiliation with you, your perceived weakness could evoke his guilt and generous behavior. But if the other party feels little sense of obligation toward you, he may try to take advantage of the perceived weakness conveyed by your disappointment.

Resource: “Does Communicating Disappointment in Negotiations Help or Hurt? Solving an Apparent Inconsistency in the Social-Functional Approach to Emotions,” by Gert-Jan Lelieveld, Eric Van Dijk, Ilja van Beest, and Gerben A. Van Kleef.


Discover how to improve your dispute resolution skills in this free report, Dispute Resolution, Working Together Toward Conflict Resolution on the Job and at Home, from Harvard Law School.


Adapted from “Bet you didn’t know…When showing disappointment helps—and when it hurts,” originally published in the September 2013 issue of Negotiation Briefings.

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