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Even after years of experience as a negotiation practitioner and teacher/coach, I am still challenged by the nefarious effects of emotion in negotiation. The experienced negotiation guru takes his car to the shop to be fixed, and comes back in the afternoon to fetch it. He is surprised to find it is not ready, despite the promise to meet that deadline. The guru begins to raise his voice, shout and has already lost the game. My head knows all about win-win and making the pie bigger. But how to control strong emotion?

The literature on this has grown geometrically in recent years, with much emphasis on neuroscience, the limbic system and the physiology of emotion in our bodies. The consensus is that we need first of all to recognize our emotions and not try to suppress them: the old school of “poker face” negotiation is out of date. Then we must somehow gain time to regain our balance, never shooting back while not in full control of our faculties. “Respond, don’t react”. “Go to the balcony”. Good advice, but of course easier said than done.

My friend Dan Shapiro at Harvard has written a seminal book about this, Beyond Reason, a fairly scholarly and eminently readable study on emotions in negotiation. His focus is on triggers, the human needs that we all have and that, when unmet or violated, lead almost involuntarily to the release of strong emotion. Shapiro isolates five that he says account for most of what is going on: Autonomy, Appreciation, Status, Role and Affiliation. He then advises us to start by recognizing which one of these resonates most with us personally, and then work to mitigate the effects of that before we resume negotiation. In a second step, we must learn to spot which trigger is at work at the other side of the table and empathize with that. Fairly convincing stuff.

While I have used this material in seminars, my passion for open vs. closed systems does lead me to question whether this is indeed a complete taxonomy. Yes, we should recognize triggers, both in ourselves and in our counterparts, but is the field not much richer than this? As I reflect on my own emotional performance in negotiation, especially when it is unsuccessful, I can indeed see some of Shapiro’s five triggers at work. But for me, other things are even more potent. Indifference, for instance, or insincerity can literally drive me wild. And on the positive side, generosity of spirit reaches my heart like no other force.

So the research continues. Self-reflection is indeed the key. Know your triggers and respect them. Express the emotion honestly. But don’t let it take the driver’s seat.

Comments welcome!


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