Dear Negotiation Coach: Defusing negotiation anxiety

By on / Negotiation Skills

Q: Negotiations make me anxious. In the past year, I negotiated for a car at a dealership, a higher salary at work, a lower price on a piece of furniture at an antiques market, and an important business contract as part of a team. Each time, my palms got sweaty, my heart started to race, and I found the whole process to be unpleasant. I worried that I wouldn’t get what I wanted, I worried about damaging my relationship with the other party, and I worried about appearing incompetent to my peers. What can I do to feel less anxious when I negotiate?

A: First, it may help to know that you are not alone. Most of us frequently feel anxious in the course of our daily lives. Believe it or not, mundane, low-stakes activities such as making a to-do list, driving to work, or talking to others can make even smart, healthy adults feel nervous. Since even such small triggers can spur anxiety, it makes sense that most people are nervous in high-pressure, interpersonal performance situations such as negotiation. In fact, my colleagues and I have found that anxiety is the most commonly experienced emotion before a negotiation, more so than excitement, sadness, calmness, or anger.

As you mentioned, feeling anxious immediately before or during a negotiation is not ideal. In an effort to alleviate their anxiety, negotiators tend to make decisions that inadvertently harm their performance, such as making low first offers, responding quickly to counteroffers, making steep concessions, and exiting negotiations prematurely.

Not to mention that a case of nerves simply takes the enjoyment out of the negotiation process.

Here are four strategies you can use to help manage your negotiation anxiety and ultimately achieve better outcomes:

1. Reframe anxiety as excitement. Many people believe that the best way to cope with anxiety is to calm down. But that’s easier said than done, as physiological arousal—your racing heart and sweaty palms—is automatic and very difficult to suppress.

A better strategy is to reframe the high arousal associated with anxiety as excitement. In my research, I have identified subtle ways to do so. For example, if someone asks you, “How do you feel about the upcoming negotiation?” you can simply say, “I am excited.” This subtle reframing tactic increases authentic feelings of excitement, which improves subsequent performance on high-pressure tasks such as public speaking and negotiating.

2. Focus on opportunities. Negotiators often focus on the potential threats and negative outcomes of a negotiation, ruminating about all the ways they might fail. This “threat mind-set” leads them to feel anxious, which makes failure more likely. As with most aspects of life, there is a chance that things will go badly in a negotiation, but there is also a chance that things will go quite well. Focus on the opportunities of the negotiation, reflecting on all the ways you can succeed, and you will develop ideas and make decisions that increase the likelihood things will go well.

3. Prepare. Feeling anxious immediately before or during a negotiation harms performance. By contrast, feeling anxious a week or a month ahead of a negotiation can motivate you to prepare, thanks to a phenomenon called defensive pessimism. Harness your anxious rumination by preparing thoroughly in advance.

4. Build your confidence through practice. In our research, my colleagues and I have found that anxiety temporarily lowers confidence in one’s negotiating ability. If you practice negotiating regularly, your familiarity with and confidence in negotiating will improve, and you will be less susceptible to the harmful effects of anxiety.

Alison Wood Brooks
Assistant Professor
Harvard Business School

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513 Pound Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138-2903

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