Emotions in Negotiation—Insincere and Real

Emotions in negotiation can be difficult to manage. Research offers guidance on the pros and cons of emotional displays, as well as how to handle anxiety when making a first offer.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

When preparing for negotiation, we often overlook the role that our emotions and our counterpart’s emotions might play in the process. Two studies offer insights into aspects of emotions in negotiation: the risks associated with faking emotions and the anxiety that often accompanies making the first offer.

Emotions in Negotiation: The Risks of Emotional Displays

Anger can carry an advantage in negotiation, research has shown. When we display anger, our counterparts tend to view us as powerful and intimidating. Consequently, they make more concessions and lower their demands.

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On the flip side, negotiators who appear happy tend to do worse than others. Because happiness and contentedness appear to signal satisfaction with how a negotiation is going, counterparts tend to demand more of happy negotiators.

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to accurately read others’ emotions in negotiation. People sometimes work to keep their true feelings under wraps. At other times, they may try to convey an emotion that’s different than what they are actually feeling. Consider the case of a negotiator who, to try to win concessions, pretends to be angered by an offer that exceeds their expectations. How does a negotiator’s perceptions of whether their counterpart’s emotional displays are authentic affect the parties’ outcomes?

Researchers Han-Ying Tng of the Duke‒National University of Singapore (NUS) Graduate Medical School in Singapore and Al K. C. Au of NUS explored this question in two experiments reported in the Negotiation Journal. In one experiment, undergraduates in Singapore were told they would engage in a negotiation simulation with another student via instant messaging. In fact, an experimenter posed as the negotiating partner. Before negotiating, participants were given information that described their counterpart as (1) sincere and frank about their emotions; (2) insincere and manipulative; or (3) unpredictable when engaging with others.

During the online negotiation, participants took turns exchanging offers with their counterpart and received information about the other party’s emotions, namely whether they were angry or happy with how the negotiation was going. When negotiators perceived their counterpart’s emotional display to be authentic, they conceded more to angry counterparts than to happy ones. But when negotiators believed their counterpart’s feelings were not authentic, they made fewer concessions to counterparts who acted angry than to those who acted happy. Negotiators made similar levels of concessions to those whose expressions of anger or happiness were ambiguous.

Using anger as a strategic tool can backfire in negotiation, the results suggest. We might conclude that false displays of happiness, by contrast, can be beneficial. However, because it’s difficult to control how your counterpart will respond to your emotional displays, this strategy could backfire as well.

It’s hard to believably show emotions you aren’t feeling. If your counterpart catches on that you’re faking, you could reach worse results than you would have if you had behaved authentically. It’s just one more argument in favor of behaving in accordance with your own ethical standards in negotiation.

Emotions in Negotiation: Anxiety and First Offers

The question of when to make the first offer in negotiations looms large. “Anchoring” talks with an initial offer can be risky when you know little about the zone of possible agreement, or ZOPA. However, many studies have found that negotiators who do their research claim the lion’s share of the value by making the first offer.

Yet for some negotiators, this advantage may be overshadowed by the anxiety of putting the first offer on the table, researchers Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University, Shirli Kopelman of the University of Michigan, and JeAnna Lanza Abbott of the University of Houston found in their research. In two experiments, the team had pairs of participants engage in price negotiations. The negotiator who made the first offer performed better financially than the negotiator who did not; however, the negotiator making the first offer also experienced greater anxiety, rooted in the concern that their counterpart would take advantage of them. As a result of this anxiety, those who made the first offer were less satisfied with their outcomes than those who did not—though their results were superior.

Anxiety-prone negotiators shouldn’t conclude that they should wait for the other side to move first. By engaging in role-playing, the researchers suggest, negotiators can practice making the first offer in a safe setting and should be able to quell their nerves.

In some cases, anxiety about making a first offer in negotiation may arise from the concern that the other party knows more about the value of what’s being negotiated than they do. For example, a consultant bidding on an assignment might not feel confident in their assessment of what the client might pay. The consultant might be able to reduce their uncertainty—and their anxiety—by doing some research online or in their network about what the client would be likely to pay.

We can often lessen our anxiety about making the first offer by arming ourselves with better information. If our research doesn’t turn up much, that might indicate you should let the other side make the first offer—lest you end up underbidding yourself.

What lessons have you learned from your experiences with emotions in negotiation?

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One Response to “Emotions in Negotiation—Insincere and Real”

  • Priti S.

    False display of happiness might get you the contract but then consequence will follow up when the other side come to know that it was false just to get the contract.
    How one deal with such consequence later?


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