The Negotiator Magazine

Back to Index

prev 1 2 3 next

download printable version (MS Word .doc)

Techniques for Handling Strong Negative Emotions

It is important to note that even being aware of and recognizing our emotions may not be enough to control behavior. Due to the way the human brain works, sometimes very strong negative emotions, such as extreme fear or rage, may lead us to act before we are even aware of the emotion. Also, most of our blood rushes to our extremities when we experience anger. So, although we are well prepared for a physical fight or for flight, our problem-solving abilities are not at their optimum, to say the least. Thus, it is ideal to be able to head off strong negative emotions before they arise; that is, to anticipate when they may arise and create an environment that will minimize their occurrence. If and when they do arise, it is important to be able to deal with them as early and as quickly as possible.

The various techniques and tools discussed below for dealing with strong negative emotions work well at different stages in the negotiation process. Some help deal with emotions when they arise during a negotiation, while others help anticipate and dissipate emotions even before they have the chance to arise.

During the Negotiation

Taking a Break

So, how do you control the strong negative emotions you feel and may act upon during a negotiation? Several techniques can help you immediately detach from the thoughts and events that are generating the emotion. Seeing the interaction from a distance allows calm rationality to prevail, and this gives you time to better analyze what is happening. The first group of techniques involves mental pauses or breaks:

Say “let me think about that.”

Use an imaginary “pause button.” Visualizing a big round red button and pressing it while you distance yourself from the immediate exchange will help you distance yourself mentally.

Focus on physical sensations in the environment. Listen to the air flow in the room, feel the sensation of your body on the chair, your hand on the table, the position of words on a piece of paper. All of these will allow you to calm your mind.

Think of a relaxing scene that you love and that touches you. It may be your backyard in the summer, a flower, your child’s face, a beach. Any of these scenes will transport you away from the current situation.

Adopt a relaxed position—find the tension in your body and relax it intentionally.

The second group of techniques involves taking a physical break, actually removing yourself from the negotiation:

Take a break for coffee or lunch.

Take a break to use the bathroom facilities.

Halt the negotiations and schedule them for another time. You can preface this move by “I think this is a good time to take a break from negotiations.”

If you are negotiating on the phone, say that someone needs you urgently and that you will call them back. However, use this technique sparingly and only if you are unable to deal with strong negative emotions in other ways.

A break lets you step away and become a detached observer—to figure out what you are feeling and why. William Ury describes this technique as “going to the balcony.”50 As you relax and distance yourself emotionally, think about how to react constructively. Breathing techniques are very beneficial to achieving calm during both mental and physical breaks. Taking a deep breath in through your nose and letting the air out slowly through your lips will help you calm down. Similarly, taking a deep breath and letting the air out all at once, as if you were sighing, will also help you calm down. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system—the part you want activated during stress so that you can relax. However, be careful about using the second breathing technique around other people; they might think you are expressing frustration, despair, despondency, boredom, anxiety, or fatigue.

Changing Your Emotions

Emotions are not fixed—they are fluid and can be changed. Hot feelings, which are less adaptable and rational, can be changed to cool feelings, which are healthier and less volatile. Thus, one way to deal with a strong hot negative emotion is to change it into a weaker or cooler emotion. Since our feelings are related to our thoughts and beliefs, we can change our feelings by changing our thoughts and beliefs.51 One simple way to change our thoughts about a feeling is to redefine it. For example, instead of labeling the emotion you are feeling as fury, identify it as irritation or annoyance instead. This small step can change how you perceive the emotion and consequently change how you feel it. Other examples include redefining depression as sadness, severe guilt as regret, and anxiety as concern.

Still another way to change an emotion is to look at the thoughts fuelling that emotion. Negotiators tend to have a bias that they are more cooperative than their counterparts and that such counterparts are more competitive and hostile.52 Based on this bias, a strong negative emotion could be created by the thought that the other side is intentionally violating standards of fairness, standards that you are upholding to your detriment. You may even tell yourself that the violation is a personal slight. However, if you were aware of your thoughts and what you were telling yourself, you would be able to change the thoughts and stop the emotion from building momentum. You would be able to look at the situation more objectively and determine whether your assessment is accurate. In a calmer state the behavior of the other side, if unfair, could be addressed in a constructive manner using, perhaps, the communication techniques discussed below.

Using Communication Techniques

There are specific communication techniques that are particularly effective in defusing competitive verbal moves that are typically used to throw us off balance by evoking strong negative emotions. These moves can include challenging competence or expertise, demeaning ideas, criticizing style, and making threats.53 These techniques are varied and include taking a break, naming the move, questioning the move, correcting the assertion with accurate information, and diverting the focus back to the substance in question. Examples of these techniques, or “turns,” appear in figure 9.6. Active listening is yet another technique that works well to deal with a competitive move.

Examples of TurnsFigure 9.6




Take a break

Let me think about that”/ “Let’s take a break”/ “Let’s get a coffee”


Signal you recognize the move

You’re questioning my credibility”/
“You’re undermining my authority”


Question the substance of the statement or rephrase the attack by turning the description
of your behavior into a question



Correct the accusation or implication

These are not my settlement figures, these are industry standards”/“Here are the fees charged by others—our fees are competitive”


Ignore the move and refocus on the problem

I would like to explore the concerns you have”/“Let’s discuss some other options”

Source: Based on the moves and turns set out in D. Kolb, “Staying in the Game” Harvard Negotiation Newsletter (December 2003).

Another technique for minimizing strong negative emotions is expressing yourself assertively when others are acting aggressively toward you. Most people find it hard to be assertive and instead take a stance that is either too hard (aggressive) or too soft (submissive). Figure 9.7 presents examples of all three stances. The “too hard” stance involves a very strong position that does not take into account the other person’s feelings or beliefs. In contrast, the “too soft” stance has no regard for the speaker’s concerns or feelings. The “just right” (assertive) stance allows the facts, as viewed by the speaker, to be brought forward with an openness that both invites and allows the other party to respond.

The Three StancesFigure 9.7



There are errors in the figures provided by the other side.

Too soft: “This is probably stupid, but these figures don’t seem to add up to me.”

Too hard: “Are you trying to rip me off?”

Just right: “Let’s look at these numbers. There appear to be discrepancies we should look at.”

The other side is not making any concessions on any issue.

Too soft: “I’m not sure that I have this right, but it seems to me that you have not made any concessions.”

Too hard: “What’s with you? Don’t you even know how to make concessions? Wasn’t that in the ‘Negotiation for Dummies’ book?”

Just right: “On several of the issues I have made concessions from my initial position. Please help me to understand why you are not also able to make concessions.”

Source: Based on the Goldilocks Test from K. Patterson et al., Crucial Conversation Tools (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002) at 133.

Creating an assertive message can be difficult and, therefore, having a basic structure to work with is helpful. One that works well is the three-part assertive message put forward by Bolton.54 The three-part message consists of (a) a non-judgmental description of behavior, (b) disclosure of how you feel about the effect of the other’s behavior on you, and (c) a description of the concrete or tangible effect on you of such behavior. For example, you may tell the other negotiator that setting the agenda without your input makes you feel unfairly treated because items that are important to you are not included. Or that when the other side is consistently late for the negotiations, you feel frustrated because of the time wasted while you wait for them. Figure 9.8 presents examples of assertive messages that use the three-part structure.

Examples of Three-Part Assertive MessagesFigure 9.8

Description of Behavior

Disclosure of Feeling

of Tangible Effect

When you use my car and don’t refill the gas tank

I feel unfairly treated

because I have to pay more money for gas.

When you borrow my tools and leave them out in the rain

I feel annoyed

because they become rusty and don’t work well.

When you call me at work and talk at length

I feel tense

because I don’t get all my work done on time.

When you do not put your dirty clothes in the hamper

I feel irritated

because it makes extra work for me when I do the wash.

Source: R. Bolton, People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979) at 153.

An assertive message allows for firmness without dominance and should satisfy the following six criteria:55

1. There is a high probability that the other person will alter the troublesome behavior being dealt with.

2. There is a low probability that you will violate the other person’s space.

3. There is little likelihood of diminishing the other person’s self-esteem.

4. There is a low risk of damaging the relationship.

5. There is a low risk of diminishing motivation.

6. There is little likelihood that defensiveness will escalate to destructive levels.

Expressing yourself assertively will prevent emotions from building momentum and allow you to deal with bothersome behavior or issues in a way that is both constructive and affirmative. In contrast, once emotions have built up, expressing them in inappropriate ways can be damaging to the relationship and counterproductive to achieving your negotiation goals. If you decide to express your emotions to the other side, express them appropriately. Don’t vent, because venting may make the situation even worse. Be clear. Describe your feelings carefully. Don’t attribute blame or judge—just share. Try to relate the emotional tone to the substantive issue. An important part of communicating about your emotions is tying your emotions to your negotiation goals; for example, expressing your frustration about the progress of the negotiation due to interests that are being ignored.

Emotion provides important information to you and the other side. If you are able to express emotion in a constructive way and at an appropriate time in the negotiation, rather than destroy or hurt the negotiation process, emotion can greatly enhance it.

1 2 3 next

Back to Index

January 2008