Alison Wood Brooks' interest in negotiations may trace back to her birth. An identical twin, she learned about competition and co-operation – and the emotions associated with them – from an early age, since she was going through life with a constant negotiating counterpart. Now a Harvard Business School professor, she studies the role of emotions in our behaviour, notably in negotiations, where they are often working against us.
She likes to demonstrate the power of those emotions by arranging her students into pairs, asking them to assume the role of client and supplier at odds over a contract, and secretly asking one side to display anger for at least 10 minutes at the beginning of the negotiation. The emotional responses tend to escalate as the negotiations continue, which we might assume is helpful, given the many images we have seen of fiery negotiators. But the more anger is shown – the more people interrupted or raised their voices or made accusations – the more likely the students' negotiation ended poorly – in litigation or no deal.
"Bringing anger to negotiations is like throwing a bomb into the process, and it's apt to have a profound effect on the outcome," she writes in Harvard Business Review.
In an e-mail interview, she stressed that negotiations, as with her sister, are not just a matter for work. "A 'negotiation' is any time two or more parties disagree or have a difference in preferences and go through a process to reach agreement or align their preferences. So many interpersonal encounters are actually negotiations," she said.
It's only in the past 10 years that scholars have been looking at the impact of specific emotions in negotiations. Here's some of what you need to know:
Her research with Wharton business school's Maurice Schweitzer found that people experiencing anxiety made weaker first offers, responded more quickly to each move the counterpart made, and were more likely to exit negotiations early, lacking patience and persistence. The deals made by anxious negotiators were 12-per-cent less financially attractive than those made by negotiators in a neutral group.
"One way to avoid feeling anxious and its deleterious effects on negotiation performance is to prepare, practise, and train. This will boost your confidence in your negotiating ability and help mitigate feelings of anxiety when you approach the bargaining table," she advised in the interview.
Can you induce anxiety in the other party to improve your results? It depends. If you are in a competitive negotiation over one issue with a stranger you will never see again – for example, haggling over price at a store – making him or her feel anxious is likely to be effective. But she says "the truth is that most negotiations have more than one issue and you are likely to negotiate with people that you care about or want to continue a relationship with in the future. So making them anxious may confer strategic advantage in the current negotiation, but you may not want to make someone you care about feel anxious and then take advantage of them."
Many people feel anger can be productive, putting the other side off their best game and winning a bigger share of the pie. But she disputes the notion that negotiations are about dividing the pie – in fact, you want to expand it. And research shows anger often harms the process by escalating conflict, colouring perceptions, increasing competitive behaviour and decreasing co-operation, and increasing the chance of an impasse. "Angry negotiators are less accurate than neutral negotiators both in recalling their own interests and in judging other parties' interests. And angry negotiators may seek to harm or retaliate against their counterparts, even though a more co-operative approach might increase the value that both sides can claim from the negotiation," she writes in the Harvard article.
Disappointment and regret
The tendency to view negotiations as win-lose can lead you to feel disappointment near the end. She urges you to ask lots of questions during the negotiation and adopt a learning mindset so afterward you feel you left no stone unturned. Another option might be a "post-settlement negotiation." Acknowledge a deal has been shaped and with a good heart suggest you spend a few more minutes chatting to see whether you can find anything that sweetens it for both sides.
Excitement and happiness
These positive emotions can also toss a monkey wrench into negotiations. Just like the National Football League will penalize excessive celebrations after a touchdown, don't gloat. "It's actually quite difficult to hide genuine feelings of excitement and pride, but it's an important skill to master. You're better off sharing your excitement privately with your spouse than with your negotiation counterpart during or after the negotiation," she said in the interview.
Preliminary evidence suggests saying "thank you" too often makes the other party feel they have made too many concessions.
We don't usually think about the role of emotions in negotiations. But she suggests that you need to prepare an emotional strategy since it's just as important – if not more important – as thinking about leverage, strategies and tactics.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter