Four Ways to Keep Emotions from Derailing Your Next Negotiation

by Deborah Blagg

Are you the point person on a merger that could make or break your company? Building a case for seed money for your startup? Have you been offered a job and now face that critical salary talk? According to negotiation expert and Harvard Professional Development instructor Maurie Kelly, when it comes to high-stakes business discussions our toughest challenge may come from within.

“We all have skills, experience, and knowledge that can help us succeed as negotiators,” she says, “but most of us have at least one inner nemesis with the potential to trip us up.”

For veteran and novice negotiators alike, self-assessment is a good way to avoid self-sabotage. Kelly says, “It pays to think about the attitudes and preconceptions you bring to the bargaining table.” False assumptions can create problems before a negotiation even starts.

Rule #1: Don't Approach a Negotiation as a Competition. Find Common Ground.

“It’s very common for people to focus too narrowly on the idea of ‘winning,’” says Kelly. “That isn’t always the ultimate goal, at least not in the way people think it is.”

Kelly urges people to think beyond the obvious. “You’re limiting your prospects if you treat negotiations as competitions,” she says. “I like to push individuals to broaden their perspective and recognize there’s a lot more going on than winning and losing.”

That recognition is particularly important in situations where the negotiating parties are involved in long-term relationships.

“To lay the groundwork for future interactions, it’s critical to demonstrate your integrity, establish trust, and show that you grasp the other side of the story,” Kelly says. “That foundation could be crucial when you need the other party to see your side of an issue a month from now. Winning at all costs is a luxury that most people can’t afford.”

Rule #2: Don't Shy Away from Conflict.

Just as an us vs. them mindset can be problematic, fear of conflict is another stumbling block.

“People can be too accommodating,” Kelly says. “Maybe conflict makes them uncomfortable, or they believe being nice is the key to being a good colleague or employee. But in reality, they are selling themselves short. And deep down, they’re probably a little angry about being the one who always gives in.”

Conflict avoiders may have to work harder to stay engaged in difficult conversations, but Kelly says it’s worth the effort. “Just imagine it’s your first or second job, and you decide to take whatever salary they offer instead of pushing for what you deserve,” she says. “Since your future earnings will be based on that figure, over an entire career you could be sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Rule #3: Develop a Solid Plan.

Whatever the negotiation, from home-buying to corporate dealmaking, Kelly advocates going to the table with a well thought-out plan.

“Even high-level executives who believe they have the experience to wing it will benefit from mapping their priorities,” she says. “What do you want most from the negotiation? If it’s money, how much? If it’s making a point, how far will you go to do that? What bridges can you burn, and when will you know it’s time to pull back?”

It’s equally important to anticipate the other party’s priorities. “Again,” says Kelly, “if your concept of ‘winning’ doesn’t include some concessions for the other party, you’re being unrealistic. Negotiations are give and take. Think about the other party’s interests and anticipate their demands. Can you give them what they want? If not, is there something else you can offer without compromising your goals?”

Rule #4: Know Your Hot Buttons, and Anticipate the Unanticipated.

Preparation can also keep negotiations from going off the rails when unanticipated problems arise or when people’s emotions get the better of them.

“Emotions are hard-wired at an early age,” Kelly says. “No matter how well you’ve prepared, you may find yourself in a situation where someone makes a comment that touches a nerve and triggers a physiological response. It may be intentional, or someone may go rogue and say something way off script. You won’t see it coming, but you can have a game plan to help you recover.”

Tactics such as yoga breathing might be enough to bring emotions back into balance. But you may need time to calm down. Communication is key.

“Talk about what’s happening,” she urges. “If the other party is unreasonably aggressive or inappropriate in some other way, you can say that the tone of the meeting has become unproductive. It will give you back some measure of control and make you seem more confident, even if you’re actually feeling vulnerable.”

Bringing It All Together

Amidst the swirl of conflicting priorities, facts and figures, and heightened emotions at play in key negotiations, those who learn to leave their inner vulnerabilities at the door can gain the upper hand.

“Planning is power,” says Kelly. “Some aspects of negotiations are beyond our control, but it’s within our grasp to understand the role of attitudes, personalities, and behaviors in this context.”

Unwittingly, you may be bringing issues to the table that are further complicating an already complex interpersonal process. According to Kelly, “Learning to control unhelpful attitudes and behaviors is a win-win for everyone.”