Are you the type of person who loses their cool when negotiating? Or do you remain silent with a veneer of self-control? Negotiations inevitably involve some emotion. The question is not one of "if" but of when. At some point during the negotiation process, someone will become emotional, either with body language or the rising of a voice. Maybe they won't go over the top, but there will be a sign that they have entered into emotional territory.

Emotions sometimes get the better of everyone. You may get frustrated and utter a few poorly chosen words. Or you may see another person suffering and be overwhelmed by compassion. Having a gut reaction is part of the human condition and clearly has a role in negotiation. Whether and when it's appropriate to express emotions, such as anger, during negotiations is the subject of much debate.

There is a difference between allowing your genuine emotions to show and tactically expressing emotion. The negotiator has to decide either to use emotion or to let it use him or her. In the former case, you may not even be aware of the strength of your emotion until you find yourself in the midst of a rant. Such displays of emotion can sometimes be effective instruments of persuasion. The negotiator who can produce a controlled and calculated outburst can use it to win support for his or her position.

However, letting emotion get the better of you in negotiations is a risky proposition. In most cases, your chance of improving your hand by allowing your emotions to take over is quite small.

Savvy negotiators use emotions tactically. They self-regulate and self-monitor their emotions, are aware of the subtle nuances implied by emotions, and know when to over- or underplay particular emotions. They understand that emotions exist on a continuum, and ask themselves where on that continuum they want to be.

Think of negotiation as a drama taking place on a stage. Emotion, when appropriate and constrained, is part of that drama. Our behavior sends weak and strong signals, and the challenge is to understand what signals are being sent and received, and how to control the message of the signals. When used well, both positive and negative emotions convey a tactical presentation of yourself and your state of mind.

On the one hand, use positive emotions when you want to:

  • Send a message to the other party that you want to include them in the process
  • Affirm or reaffirm the social bond between you and the other party
  • Convey to the other party that you care about their position--and that you know that their position influences your situation
  • Signal your willingness to be flexible

On the other hand, using negative emotions sends a very concrete message: You are indicating that you do not need them in the process. And perhaps you can do very well without their help and input. You are saying in no uncertain terms that they (and by extension, their position) mean very little to you, and that they (and their position) have no relevance to your position.

There is no single strategy guaranteed to be more effective than the other. Some say that when in doubt, go negative: Draw a line in the sand and you're more likely to win concessions. One experiment showed that negotiators who engaged in threats, argumentation, and rejections produced better outcomes than negotiators who emphasized a positive strategy.

Other research suggests that a positive, inclusive emotional tone is ultimately more effective. Most likely the truth lies somewhere in between, and the effectiveness of each strategy depends on aspects of the situation, such as the importance of the issues at stake and the personalities of the opposing parties.

When a negotiator uses emotion to signal an attitude or a position, it is most effective as constrained emotion, a gesture, a tonality of frustration, a flash of discouragement from a head movement. Unconstrained emotions--outbursts, anger, visible frustration, storming out of the room--are not part of the drama. More often than not, unconstrained emotion will result in the negotiator losing points at the table and it will be almost impossible for them to recover. Constrained emotion, with direct yet soft signals, communicates a strong attitude most often without penalty.

Be focused. Be tactical. Be in control. Use emotions with constraint when negotiating.