The Negotiator Magazine

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Part II

Dealing with Strong Negative Emotions


Delee Fromm

Negotiations, due to their nature, create and foster strong negative emotions. Where individuals meet to primarily promote their self-interests or where the past histories of the parties involved have been colored by acrimony, it is not surprising that sometimes emotions are more powerful than facts in determining the course and outcome of negotiations. And, as indicated above, even if a strong negative emotion is not generated by us, the operation of mirror neurons may cause us to “catch” it if it is displayed by our counterpart. Not all emotions are triggered by the negotiation itself. Very recent research has shown that a negotiator’s emotional state created by events unrelated to the negotiation, called incidental emotions, also affects that negotiator’s behavior and the negotiation outcome.36

The main assertion in this chapter thus far has been that emotion should not be ignored or suppressed because it has a very important role to play. However, emotional flooding—when specific, strong negative emotions overwhelm us37—can obstruct negotiations in several important ways: it can divert attention from substantive matters; reveal information that we would prefer to keep hidden (because it can be used to manipulate us by the other side); subordinate and disrupt our ability to think; and cause us to lose our temper, stumble over words, and/or neglect the substantive negotiation goals.38 Suppressing emotion is not the answer. Doing so can lead to many unwanted consequences, some of which are similar to the disruptive effects of experiencing a strong negative emotion. Research indicates that suppressed emotion can lead to anxiety, impaired cognitive ability, reduced memory, a decrease in likeability, and greater competitive behaviour.39 Suppressed emotion can also leak into an interaction through tone, non-verbal behavior, and attitude.

So, how can you best handle strong negative emotions in a negotiation? It is important to (1) know your own personal trigger points and thus be able to anticipate when strong negative emotions may arise in you; (2) have techniques and tools to draw upon to proactively reduce or eliminate the triggers of strong negative emotions during a negotiation and help deal with strong negative emotions as they arise; and (3) be able to assess your emotions and their level of intensity as early as possible.

Emotional Trigger Points

The two negative emotions that have been found to affect negotiations most often and most dramatically are anger and fear.40 Thus, identifying negotiation situations and subjects that trigger anger and fear is a very important first step in learning to deal with such emotions. Anger can be triggered by violating rules41 or assumptions42 and by threats to our identity.43 For example, if our assumptions about fairness, truthfulness, trust, or concession-making are violated, anger can be triggered. Once we recognize the assumptions that we are operating under, we can consider whether they are valid in the circumstances or not. Other triggers can include rudeness, time constraints, disregard for relationship, misrepresentation, excessive demands, the illegitimate exercise of another’s authority, and challenges to a person’s authority.44

Threats to our identity have the potential to disrupt our sense of self in the world or dash our ideas about who we think we are. Our identity comprises those stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and there are as many identities as there are people.45 Negotiation seems to trigger several common identity issues, including Am I competent? Am I fair? Am I a good person? Threats to our identity are profoundly disturbing. They can easily knock us off balance and trigger strong negative emotions such as anger—even if we are unaware of the cause. The Am I competent? issue tends to be particularly important to lawyers—and can encompass concerns about being right, effective, and intelligent.

We cannot entirely protect ourselves against threats to our identity, just as we cannot eliminate our vulnerability. However, there are two ways to temper our reactions in the face of such threats. The first is to become aware of our particular identity issues (especially those that might come up during a negotiation), and the second is to avoid the all-or-nothing way of thinking about identity. For example, instead of saying “I’m either competent or incompetent, fair or unfair, good or evil,” expand your thinking to include, “I can be both wrong and competent.”46

Strong negative emotions can also be triggered by undesirable traits we see in others that we believe are not a part of us. These traits, or characteristics, make up our shadow. Since most of us are blind to our shadow, we strongly react to our undesirable characteristics in others.47 In negotiations, the commonly held bias that we are cooperative and the other person is hostile and competitive48 appears to be based on shadow projection. In other words, this bias may arise due to the projection of our undesirable traits, or shadow, onto the other person in an unconscious attempt to keep from seeing it in ourselves. Shadow dynamics can impede negotiations because they trigger strong negative emotions and provide “hot buttons” for others to push. If you find yourself consistently overreacting to someone or to certain kinds of behavior, try to identify what is triggering your response.49 It just might be your shadow.

It is also possible to react negatively to another negotiator we have never met before based on his or her resemblance to someone who affected us emotionally in the past. Often this reaction occurs without our awareness of the resemblance, so this trigger point is particularly hard to identify and understand. If you have gone through all of the other types of trigger points and none of them seem applicable, it could be that you are dealing with a resemblance trigger. Figure 9.5 presents a checklist that may help you identify trigger points in a negotiation.

Trigger-Point ChecklistFigure 9.5

What Does It Involve?


r Violations of assumptions
or rules

Are my standards of fairness being violated? Is the common bias operating about my being cooperative and fair while the other party is hostile and competitive? What rule or assumption that I hold is being violated by the other’s behavior?

r Identity issues

Has something been raised that questions what I tell myself I am or hope to be, such as Am I competent? Am I fair? Am I a good person?

r Shadow characteristics

Is the other person demonstrating undesirable characteristics that I possess but will not admit to (dishonesty, incompetence, meanness, unfairness, etc.)?

r Reminder of unpleasant past events or persons

Does this situation remind me of a past unpleasant experience? Does the other person remind me of someone with whom I have had an unpleasant experience in the past?

r Core concerns not being met

Are my ideas, thoughts, and actions being devalued? Am I not being treated with respect but treated as an adversary? Is my freedom to make decisions being impaired? Am I being treated as inferior to others? Is my current role not personally fulfilling?

Note: This checklist can also be used to analyze the other side’s strong negative emotions.

Fear, the other emotion that most often affects negotiations, may be triggered by feeling unprepared or inadequate, being unable to deal with the other side, having a poor BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), or facing a more powerful opponent. Some people even suffer from fear of fear—that is, they fear the physical symptoms of fear. As with anger, the way to deal with fear involves being aware of it first and then using techniques to address it.

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January 2008