The art of negotiation: make your emotions work for you and not against you.

by Jul 8, 2021Leadership, Strategy

In one of Harvard Business School’s MBA classes, Associate Professor of Business Alison Wood Brooks runs an interesting negotiation exercise for her students which she calls ‘Honoring the Contract’.

In this exercise, each student is assigned a partner and they are each given different accounts of a troubled relationship between a supplier- a computer components manufacturer, and their client- a search engine start-up. The two parties are reported to have signed a detailed contract some eight months earlier but are now at odds over a few terms among them pricing, product reliability, energy efficiency specs and sales volume. 

The students assume either the role of the supplier or client and receive confidential information about the company’s politics and finances. Each pair is then tasked with renegotiating the contract-  a process that could result in either an amended deal, termination of the contract or expensive litigation.

The interesting thing about this simulation isn’t in the details of the case but in ‘top- secret instructions’ given to one side of each pairing just before the exercise starts.

“Ensure you start the negotiation with a display of anger which must last a minimum of 10 minutes.” 

The instructions go on to give specific tips for showing anger: Call him “unreasonable” or “unfair”. Interrupt them frequently when they’re talking. Blame her personality for the disagreement. Raise your voice,  etcetera.

The student pairs are spread all over the building so that they don’t see how others are behaving. As the pairs negotiate, the Associate Professor walks around and observes. Some students struggle to feign anger while others are spectacularly good at it. They pace around. They point and wag a finger in their partner’s face. Some even throw a few documents in the air. The exercise has never resulted in a physical confrontation, but in many instances,  it has come terribly close.

Some of the students who aren’t given the secret instructions try to defuse the other person’s anger. Most, however, react angrily themselves- and it’s amazing how quickly the emotional response escalates. 

When the students are brought back into the classroom after about 30 minutes, there are always a dozen or so still yelling at each other or shaking their heads in disbelief.

After the exercise, the pairs are then surveyed to see how angry they felt and how they then fared in resolving the challenge. Often, and not surprisingly, the more anger the parties displayed, the more likely it was that that negotiation ended poorly- usually in an impasse (no deal) or litigation.

This Harvard MBA class experiment is one of many exercises done in recent times to try and understand the role that emotions such as sadness, anger, envy, disappointment, excitement, etc- play in influencing a negotiation outcome.


How emotions affect negotiations

How we communicate is greatly affected by how we feel. We all know this but few of us work consciously to keep negative emotions in check especially during negotiations which often leads to unfavourable results. 

Among the range of emotions humans have, 2 stand out most in shaping the outcome of any negotiation. These are Anger and  Anxiety.


Anger to negotiation is what petrol is to fire

A subtle display of anger is sometimes seen as a show of control and a way of defining boundaries. According to a study in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 86,) getting angry when you negotiate could in some circumstances help you gain more concessions in a deal- at least if that deal is with someone you’ll never meet again. 

However, if you intend to engage in future business, displays of anger will only reduce your likeability and lower your chances of getting a good deal in future

 Anger also leads negotiators to make riskier choices than they would in normal circumstances. When negotiation decisions are made in anger, people have a tendency to blame others when things go wrong. In a 2016 study, researchers Maurice E. Schweitzer -the Wharton School and Jeremy A. Yip- Georgetown University found that anger also leads negotiators to behave more deceptively.

When angry, people tend to act selfishly in what they believe to be their best interest and ignore any possibilities of giving the other party a fair deal. As such, their counterparts will also get into self-preservation mode and often an impasse will be the result with both parties adamant to make any concessions. 


When people are anxious during a negotiation, they are more likely to make weaker first offers.  They also have a tendency to respond more quickly to each move made by their counterparts and are more likely to exit the negotiations early.

In a study done in 2011 by researchers Maurice Schweitzer and Alison Brooks, they found that anxious negotiators made deals that were 12% less financially attractive than the ones made by negotiators in a relaxed state of mind. 

They also discovered that when people felt anxious, their confidence dropped significantly. they were also more likely to consult others before making a decision, often less able to distinguish between good and bad advice.

Most excellent negotiators have a tendency to make their counterparts feel anxious when they come to the negotiating table. They do it on purpose too. The famed television series ‘Shark Tank’ exemplifies this well.

It comprises 5 to 6 wealthy investors- the sharks- who negotiate with entrepreneurs hoping for funding for their businesses in exchange for equity or royalty options on the products or services. The entrepreneurs pitch their ideas in front of huge television audiences while facing aggressive and unnerving questions from the sharks. 

The investors (sharks) are professional negotiators, having learned the art of deal-making from many years in business. Throughout the show, they try to knock the entrepreneurs off-balance to make it easier to secure ownership at the lowest price possible. When there are multiple sharks circling a deal, they also try to make each other anxious or downright angry by dropping scathing remarks.

If you watch the show closely, you’ll probably notice a pattern of sorts. The entrepreneurs who seem most calm or the least rattled by the stressors in that environment tend to negotiate the most deliberately and carefully. In turn, they often secure the best deals from the sharks.

This same scenario often plays out in interview rooms. The 3-5 serious-looking executives in suits, the unnerving questions, the take it or leave it offer on the table with a ticking timeline, etcetera. 

The calm interviewee will most often waltz through, giving appropriate responses to even the toughest of questions from the panel. They are also perceived as the most confident, a trait quite admirable in leaders and in turn it’s they and not the anxious competition that secure the job. 


How to keep calm and in control

  • Learn to manage your anxiety

From the research and even your own experiences, I am certain that the result is clear: You should try as much as possible to avoid feeling anxious while negotiating. But that is something that is easier said than done. It can, however, be done. The first thing to understand is that anxiety often stems from fear. So to manage your anxiety, you need to conquer whatever it is you fear. 

How do you manage that? 

One way is through exposure therapy. This is a form of behavioral therapy that is designed to help people progressively manage their fear of something. Take for instance someone with a fear of flying on airplanes. To conquer this fear, they could be progressively exposed to the experience, first by getting used to the sights and sounds around an airport, then sitting on airliner seats before ultimately taking flight.

They may not be completely over the fear which is where we enter the second phase. Practice, practice, practice.

There are many negotiation classes that teach different strategies and skills. I recommend you enroll in one. One of the primary benefits you will get is the comfort that comes from repeated practice and exposure to various scenarios and simulations.

Practice, train, rehearse and continue to sharpen your negotiation skills. Anxiety is often a response to a new stimulus or situation, so the more you familiarize yourself with the stimuli, the more comfortable and less anxious you will feel during an actual negotiation.


  • See negotiation as a collaboration instead of a competition

Just like anxiety, anger is a negative emotion. However, instead of being self-focused, it’s usually directed outwards towards others. In most circumstances, we try and succeed, to keep our tempers in check. 

However, when it comes to negotiating, many people believe that they are competing for limited resources i.e. if your counterpart gets more you get less- A kind of fixed pie chart. 

It’s this belief that leads many to think that anger can be a productive emotion—one that will help them win a larger share of the pie. This belief stems from a tendency to view negotiations from a competitive perspective rather than a collaborative one. 

Researchers call this the fixed-pie bias: Many people, especially those with limited experience in deal-making, assume that a negotiation is a zero-sum game in which their own interests are in direct conflict with a counterpart’s.  In contrast, the more experienced negotiators try to look for ways to expand the pie through collaboration, rather than trying to snatch a bigger slice. 

If you can find and show how both of you benefit from the negotiation, you are less likely to be angry at the other person’s perspective and will be less provoked to anger.


. . . . . . . . .

There is one interesting scene from the TV show 30 Rock, where the hard-driving CEO Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin), who fancies himself an expert negotiator, is explaining to a colleague why he struck a poor deal: 

“I lost because of emotion, which I always thought was a weakness, but now I have learned can also be a weapon.” 

In the same breath, I urge you to wield your emotions thoughtfully. Always think carefully about when to draw these weapons, when to shoot, and when to keep them safely tucked away in a hidden holster. Try to avoid feeling anxious, be careful about expressing anger and be on the lookout for ways to increase the pie for a win-win situation.

Just as you prepare your strategic and tactical moves before a negotiation, you should invest effort in preparing your emotional approach. It will be time well spent.






Samuel Njoroge writes and speaks about Creativity, Strategy, Leadership and Productivity. 

Through his boutique firm, Azelea Coaching Advisory, he works directly with over 100 business leaders and entrepreneurs each year to help them design the necessary framework to achieve their biggest business targets. 

Invite SAMUEL to speak at your IN-PERSON OR VIRTUAL event.


Samuel's specialty is designing and breaking down complex projects to really simple steps. 


Samuel Njoroge Advisory
Luther Plaza, Nyerere Road
Nairobi, Kenya.

2021 © Samuel Njoroge Advisory Ltd.  
- All Rights Reserved

Help               Privacy               Terms