Adapted from “Damage Control for Disappointing Results,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, March 2011.
Following what he described as the “shellacking” he and congressional Democrats received during the 2010 midterm elections, President Barack Obama invited GOP leaders of the lame-duck Congress to meet with him at the White House. The leaders postponed the president’s invitation by two weeks. On the heels of this apparent slight, Obama extended another olive branch: a freeze on federal salaries. Senate Republicans responded with a vow to block almost all legislation unless the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy were extended.
Obama’s concessionary behavior could be chalked up to the desire to move forward with a limited agenda. More interesting was his decision not to show frustration with his opponents. During a press conference after the tax-cut negotiation, the president displayed more anger toward fellow Democrats, calling them “sanctimonious” purists, than toward the Republicans who had backed him into a corner.
Obama’s surprising decision to lash out at liberal members of his own party rather than the opposition may have been impulsive but, given his reputation for controlling his emotions, it might have been part of a long-term strategy for winning back independent voters.
The judicious expression of emotion can be useful in negotiation, especially when others on your side are watching. Suppose, for example, that you grow frustrated with the team across the table for backing away from a concession. By expressing your feelings constructively, you could show the other side and your teammates alike that you won’t tolerate further broken promises.
Expressing emotions strategically doesn’t mean you should try to manufacture emotions you don’t feel. Rather, aim to stay attuned to your feelings and express them constructively when you need to send a well-timed message.
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