When Emotions Converge

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “I Know Exactly How You Feel,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Theorists have long distinguished one-shot deals from repeated negotiations. People who know they’ll never see one another again may be tempted to take advantage of one another, for example. By contrast, parties in ongoing relationships, even ones that have a competitive edge, may temper their behavior, mindful of the risk that “what goes around, comes around.”

Research by Cameron Anderson of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Dacher Keltner and Oliver P. John of the University of California at Berkeley’s Psychology Department suggests another reason why long-term negotiations seem distinctive: people who spend protracted time together become more alike emotionally. This convergence is not quite the same as so-called emotional contagion, the phenomenon whereby expressive people tend to temporarily influence the feelings of those around them. (For example, if you’re in a waiting room with a fidgety person, you’re likely to get a bit more anxious yourself.)

Emotional convergence, by contrast, is a long-term effect. In terms of what frightens, amuses, or saddens them, two roommates may react differently to a film scene when they first live together and then develop more similar responses over time. What’s amazing is that even if they are shown the same film in different rooms, outside each other’s company, their feelings become more alike.

These findings are especially relevant to negotiations conducted within organizations and teams. Specifically, the researchers say that “high-power individuals may create social environments inhabited by people with emotional tendencies similar to their own.” That’s fine if the resulting emotional atmosphere fosters creativity and problem solving, but it can be destructive if the collective sensibility becomes hostile and aggressive. Looked at from another perspective, the low-power, low-status negotiators may be those who build group cohesion through open communication, accommodation, and compromise.

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