How Emotions Affect Negotiations

Wondering how emotions affect negotiations? Research lends insight into reading negotiating counterparts’ emotions with accuracy.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

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Emotions play a critical but little-understood role in negotiation. Strong emotions such as anger can derail negotiations, yet keeping emotions under wraps can lead to misunderstandings and impasse. Increasingly, researchers are looking more closely at how emotions affect negotiations. The results of two studies offer lessons related to the impact of emotions in negotiation.

How Emotions Affect Negotiations: Reading Between the Lines

In negotiation, reading others’ emotions is a critical skill. When you can accurately assess whether a job candidate is pleased by a salary offer, if a potential customer is growing impatient with a sales pitch, or if a colleague was hurt by something you said, you will be able to respond appropriately and better determine if an agreement is in sight.

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From experience, we know that some people are better at reading emotions than others. But why? People tend to assume that empathic accuracy, or the ability to discern others’ feelings, is associated with intuition, University of La Verne professor Christine Ma-Kellams and Harvard University professor Jennifer Lerner found in one experiment on the topic. But the results of other experiments the researchers conducted showed that, in fact, people who tend to rely on their intuition are less empathically accurate than those who think more analytically.

In one experiment, for example, participants in an executive-education program at Harvard were paired up and engaged in mock job interviews. Afterward, they answered questions about how they felt and how they thought their partners felt during the interviews. Participants’ general tendency to rely on intuitive versus analytical thought was also assessed in a separate test.

The results showed that the more participants relied on systematic (rather than intuitive) thought, the more accurately they read their partners’ emotions. In another experiment, participants who were encouraged to rely on systematic thinking before engaging in a mock interview were better at reading their partners’ feelings than were those who were induced to rely on intuitive thinking.

Overall, the results are good news for those of us who believe that our intuition fails us when it comes to reading counterparts’ emotions in negotiation: We should be able to improve our empathic accuracy by thinking more deeply about what the other party might be feeling and why. Although intuition can be helpful in certain aspects of life, these results confirm that in negotiation, more methodical analysis may lead to more accurate conclusions and better results.

How Emotions Affect Negotiations: When Emotions Conflict

Business negotiators often find themselves feeling positive and negative emotions simultaneously, such as concern that an offer won’t be received well and excitement over the offer’s potential.

We often try to hide our emotions in negotiation for fear of appearing unstable or vulnerable. Indeed, past research has suggested that expressions of emotional ambivalence—the signs of tension or conflict that show in our faces and bodies when we experience negative and positive feelings at the same time—can be dangerous in distributive negotiations, or those in which negotiators are battling over a fixed pie of resources. In such situations, counterparts tend to view ambivalent negotiators as submissive and consequently are able to dominate them.

But a 2015 study suggests that in the more complex negotiations typical of our business and personal lives, feeling and expressing conflicting emotions may actually be beneficial. In their study, Naomi B. Rothman of Lehigh University and Gregory B. Northcraft of the University of Illinois looked at how emotionally ambivalent negotiators are perceived in integrative negotiations, or those where negotiators have opportunities to create value across issues.

In one of their experiments, where participants were encouraged to cooperate, some watched a silent videotape of a negotiation in which one party (an actor) appeared either happy, angry, ambivalent, or unemotional. The participants who watched a video were told they would engage in a negotiation simulation over a new car via instant messaging with the person in the video; in actuality, they were paired with another participant who had not seen a video. During their 30-minute negotiation, the pairs of participants could potentially claim or create value across such issues as sales price, warranty, financing, and delivery date.

When participants were negotiating with a partner they perceived as emotionally ambivalent, pairs achieved higher joint value than did pairs in which the partner had expressed anger or no emotion. (When partners expressed happiness, the results were inconclusive.) Participants perceived ambivalent partners as submissive, and this submissiveness explained the pairs’ success at creating value in negotiation. Expressing ambivalence may have invited assertive behavior from negotiation partners and helped expand the pie of resources. Thus, when considering how emotions affect negotiations, note that your conflicting emotions in multi-issue negotiations may be less of a hindrance than you might think, especially if you can set a cooperative tone.

What insights have you reached regarding how emotions affect negotiations?

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