This is a story about emotional intelligence and getting what you want. It's the kind of practical advice you'll find in my free e-book Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can  download here.

The techniques we'll be talking about have to do with negotiating, but they apply in many other aspects of life, too. The principles carry over into almost every interaction that you have with other people.

Really, there are five key principles or rules, each based on a principle of emotional intelligence. If you keep them in mind, you'll find you're more likely to see positive outcomes.

Rule No. 1: Never skip the small talk.

I feel like this is one we're all going to have to work on after the pandemic. 

But people who have the emotional intelligence to be patient, and develop a rapport over things that aren't critical to the conversation -- in other words, engage in small talk -- are far more likely to get what they want.

You don't just have to take my word for this one. A study at the Stanford Graduate School of Business involved setting up some negotiators who conducted most of their discussions over email, and others who began with a friendly, non-agenda phone call to develop rapport ahead of time.

Since I'm citing it as support, you'll likely guess the result:

Even though the telephone conversation was strictly nonbusiness, schmoozing negotiators anticipated and planned a cooperative, positive negotiation experience from the outset, and they attained better economic and social outcomes.

Why does it work? Well, I've written before about the difference between parallel responses and convergent responses during conversations. In short:

  • Parallel responses are ones that suggest that you believe your process of achieving empathy is complete, on the basis of something else you've brought to the interaction (often, past experience).
  • Convergent responses suggest that you believe the process of achieving empathy is incomplete, but that you want to work to make it complete (by continuing the discussion and learning more about the other person's point of view).

To use an example, imagine that an employee confides that they had a very hard time coping with work during the pandemic. 

  • A parallel response might be something like: "I've had a hard time too. I understand exactly."
  • A more convergent response? Maybe: "I've had a hard time too. Tell me more about what's been going on."

One theory about why small talk becomes important in negotiations (big or small), is that they're an exercise in attempting to reach convergence. 

The more convergent your small talk is, the less awkward it will feel, and the more rapport you'll build. Emotionally intelligent people know to work on it -- and never, ever to skip it.

Rule No. 2: Envision the other side's emotional motivations.

Start by thinking through what you imagine the people you're dealing with would like to see as an outcome, and then imagine what their emotional motivation for wanting that outcome might be.

Examples:

In a business negotiation, the other side might want you to offer a product at a particular price. 

They might want this because it makes good business sense, but they might also want it because they want to avoid the feeling of being taken advantage of. Or they might want the pride of knowing that they got a better deal than their competitors.

In a personal conversation, friends might have ideas about where to go to dinner together.

They might want to suggest a particular place (or avoid making any suggestions at all) because they want a certain kind of food. But they might also be motivated emotionally by a desire to feel like their suggestions are taken seriously.

Either way, people are sometimes motivated by a root emotional goal as much as their practical goal. That emotionally intelligent realization on your part might easily affect how you decide to play it.

Bonus points: Examine your own emotional motivation. Will advocating for the practical thing you thought you wanted really help you get there?

Rule No. 3: Use the first person plural.

Whenever you can, say "we" instead of "I."

Obviously, don't just plug it in willy-nilly.

But if you find yourself talking about yourself, change the context so that "we" makes more sense.

  • Not: "I really want us to reach an agreement tonight," if you can instead say: "We should hopefully be able to reach an agreement."
  • Not: "I want Thai food tonight," but instead: "Oh, we could try that new Thai restaurant that just opened!"

"Highlight what you have in common," Carolyn O'Hara wrote in Harvard Business Review. "Using 'we' rather than 'I' signals to the other side that there are areas of agreement and that you envision a future working together."

This is really a very small change that takes only a brief moment of thought to incorporate. People with high emotional intelligence understand why it's worth it.

Rule No. 4: Figure out if the other side actually can reach an agreement.

Another way to put this is: Don't waste your time, and don't waste the other person's time.

More negotiations fall apart at the end for this reason than for any other: because one side suddenly announces that they don't actually have the authority to reach an agreement.

Sometimes, you realize that this has been true throughout the conversation. Sometimes, terms have changed. Sometimes, it's just an excuse.

In that last case, at least you know no agreement is going to be forthcoming.

Lest we make this sound too much like a pure business context rule, it works in social situations, too. 

To use a slightly self-deprecating example, when I was in high school and really hoped I could get a girl to go out with me, if she only wanted to date varsity football players, then she was only going to date football players.

It didn't matter if I suggested Friday or Saturday, or where I suggested we go. 

The emotional intelligence piece here is as much about you as it is about the other side. Don't allow the fact that they won't agree no matter what to leave you feeling hurt.

"Yes" wasn't going to happen, no matter what you did. It's not you; it's them. (No, seriously.)

Rule No. 5: Use your codewords.

This is my favorite rule on the list. I warn you: Some might call it passive-aggressive.

But let me defuse that by saying up front, as un-passively-aggressively as possible, by stating quite clearly that they're dead wrong.

You won't find this rule in any business school case study; in fact, it's something I learned when my daughter was just 3 years old, and I was taking her to church with my father-in-law. 

I told her as we went inside that she had to remember to be good, not just because we were going into a church where people often have to be quiet, but also because her grandfather -- my father-in-law -- really needed peace and quiet for this one hour.

And I also told her that we should come up with a codeword together, so that if I said it, she'd remember she had to be quiet and sit still, and it would be our secret little joke.

I let her pick the word. She chose broccoli. It worked.

Every time she got a little worked up, I'd whisper broccoli with a smile, and she'd chuckle a bit before calming down.

It's not just for negotiating with 3-year-olds, though. Create codewords for the others on your side. 

Example: "If I use the phrase, 'peel the onion,' stay quiet and don't say a word until we make the other side talk first."

Look, emotional intelligence has gotten a bad rap lately, but to my mind, it's like anything else: a set of tools and a mode of thinking that you can use to train yourself to react in ways that make it more likely you'll get what you want out of life.

It's really about recognizing that people have disparate motivations for the same things and that they often don't even recognize their emotional motivations.

If you can start paying attention to them closely -- both in yourself and in other people -- it gives you a big advantage.

Start with these five rules, and see if they don't improve your outcomes. And while you're at it, download the free e-book Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, with all kinds of good, practical advice.