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When Emotion Obstructs Negotiation

Elizabeth Lewis

Not too long ago I read a rather outrageous article in The Daily Telegraph about a Sydney woman who was appearing in court over a "bubble tea brouhaha' which resulted in the destruction of a $120 novelty bikini birthday cake along with other items belonging to the cha tea shop. 


What could lead to such a debacle, you ask? Well, it appears that the woman became incensed when the shop assistant refused to add a third helping of sweet syrup to her tea. He viewed the request as excessive, and subsequently denied her demand for a refund. Her response was to flip the pink bikini cake out of his hands and onto the floor. Naturally the shop assistant became rather unhappy at this development, grabbing the woman and demanding compensation, at which point her fiancé stepped in and began to throw appliances and serving ware around the store. 


What a fiasco, and all over a request to add some syrup to a $5 drink! 


Most of us would deem the woman's reaction and the ensuing escalation of the situation as rather over-the-top. Flipping the cake on the floor is the adult equivalent of a child throwing their toy mid-tantrum when they don't get their own way. The common denominator in both situations is allowing emotion to take the driver's seat. Was it reasonable for the woman to be annoyed, angry even, at the shop assistant's refusal to add syrup and then deny her request for a refund? Yes perhaps, but letting her emotions get the better of her and going on a cake- ruining rampage was never going to satisfactorily resolve the situation or help her achieve her goal of getting a sweeter drink or her money back. 


Why? Because when your emotions have free reign, you lose focus. You lose perspective of what it is you set out to achieve. Your argue step goes out the window – how can you ask effective questions and actively listen to the other party when you’re yelling, screaming or-God forbid – throwing cake on the floor? And in amongst all the noise and the chaos you’re much more likely to miss important signals and make mistakes. 


So then, how do we overcome emotion during negotiation? 


What to do when YOUR emotions get out of control 

  • Learn from your prior mistakes: we are all human and emotion is part-and-parcel of that condition. At some point in all of our lives we’ve flown off the handle unnecessarily in response to a situation where we did not get what we wanted. But we can use these experiences to identify triggers and recognise situations where we may have a tendency to react emotionally. Having that awareness is a major step in being able to choose a more productive response in the future


  • Don’t forget your objective: try to remember what it is you set out to achieve. What is most important here?


  • Recognise and assess: if you can feel yourself starting to lose your calm and focus, stop and evaluate what you are feeling – anger, frustration, stress, anxiety? Then ask yourself: ‘is this feeling likely to help or hurt my negotiation?’. If you remain at the negotiation table while you feel this way, what will be the likely outcome?


  • Take a break: when you recognize that your emotions are beginning to escalate to the point of obstructing the negotiation, remove yourself from the situation temporarily. Adjournments are an essential tool you can use to cool off and get your thoughts back in order before your do or say something which could be detrimental to the relationship. When you can feel your blood boiling and your fists clenching, acknowledge it and excuse yourself. The length of adjournment will vary depending on the situation, but use this time to collect yourself, regain focus and consider a fresh approach to the issue at stake.


  • Summarise the good news: before you took a break, what were the positive aspects you had agreed upon? Remind the other party (and yourself) and set the tone for the rest of the negotiation.


What to do when THEIR emotions escalate 

  • Don’t reciprocate: don’t take the bait and bite back or it’s likely to escalate into a scenario reminiscent of our tea-drinking cake-thrower. Not a good outcome for anyone.  


  • Summarise the good news: once again, remind the other party of the positive aspects you’ve agreed on so far so that you make the gap look small. 


  • Ask good, curious questions: ask questions which will demonstrate you understand… rather than just pointing out that they are wrong, which is highly likely to further enflame the other party. 


  • Take a break: Give them (and yourself) an opportunity to calm emotions and regain focus. 



Having the skill to effectively negotiate without emotion derailing the outcome may seem easier said than done. But it is an achievable journey which will get easier with time and practice. If you’d like some help along the way, click on request a callback to speak to one of our negotiation specialists. 


Happy negotiating! 



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