Negotiating Emotion

Everything in life is a negotiation; practice and not power is what often determines the outcome. This is the theme of a workshop rolled out in our own business recently. We used roundtable learning to explore how colleagues feel about the concept of negotiation, the circumstances in which we find ourselves negotiating and to understand the different styles of conflict management that people adopt during such interactions.

Conflict Styles

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed in the 1970’s what is still the most widely used conflict style inventory, the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). TKI identifies five different styles of conflict: Competing (assertive, uncooperative), Avoiding (passive, uncooperative), Accommodating (Passive, cooperative), Collaborating, (assertive, cooperative) and Compromising (mid assertiveness and midcooperativeness). It is a useful tool to help people understand their own behaviour and how they can work to improve negotiated outcomes.

Emotional Impact

Throughout the workshop we discuss the often dominant role of emotion, even over economic factors, in determining negotiation results. Some researchers believe that emotion has up to 70% impact and towards the end of our session when we conduct simple role-plays we really see this being borne out. We explain that aside from being ill-prepared, the number one obstacle to effective negotiation is anxiety. Anxiety is a state of distress, one in which we feel threatened. It undermines the confidence, patience and persistence that is required in any negotiation process. Anxiety yields poor outcomes, creating a compelling urge to exit the process at any cost and a greater likelihood of being taken advantage of by the other party. Supressing these feelings and avoiding thought distortions leads to radically better results.


If good negotiated outcomes mean compromising, great negotiated outcomes require collaboration. When a party demands a cut in cost without really having something to give in return, this isn’t negotiation, it is asking for a discount. This is competitive conflict management at its worst and leaves one or other party feeling cheated. It ultimately always leads to a break down in the value that could have been derived from the relationship between these parties. Collaboration requires both parties to truly understand the needs of the other. In an economic negotiation, this means the supplier working to understand the position of the buyer by putting themselves in their shoes and the buyer being authentic in addressing their real needs. Although price is often the figurative subject of negotiation, in many cases it is not the real need. Negotiators who let price become the central theme often neglect other, and sometimes more important, aspects of a deal. Suppliers who neglect a buyer’s real problem do not achieve good long term results. Not every deal can be done, it is the one that you feel you cannot walk away from that you are most likely to suffer your worst outcome.

At the end of our workshop we use a version of a negotiation exercise created by Professor Mary Rowe of the MIT Sloan School of Management. It is a simple bargaining game whereby two euro must be divided by two participants, but never on a fifty-fifty basis. Naturally both participants have competing covert agendas but generally we explain that we want them to focus on relationship development. This is an aspect to negotiation that is often overlooked and yet vital when you need to bypass an impasse. It is in observing these role plays that, were we ever in doubt about it, we see the enormous influence of emotional control in achieving desired outcomes.