Negotiate 1-2-3

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Open with Confidence

Learning Objectives Est. time: 10 min.

  • Preparing emotionally for negotiation
  • Transforming anxiety into positive energy
  • Tuning your mindset for peak performance

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Imagine that you are moments away from starting an important negotiation. You might be meeting with your boss in hopes of gaining a promotion and raise. It might be with a key customer whose business you need to land. Or maybe you’re headed a community meeting where neighbors will be arguing about a contentious issue.

Take this quick survey about how you would likely feel going into situation that matters a lot to you.

Managing Anxiety

People have varying feelings when starting a negotiation, as the results below show. For example, some individuals are more confident than others are. But almost everyone feels a degree of anxiety—for some, just a little; for others much more. Drawing on her studies, Harvard Business School Professor Alison Wood Brooks reports that “anxiety is the most commonly experienced emotion before a negotiation, more so than excitement, sadness, calmness, or anger.”

According to Brooks, feeling some anxiety can have some positive effects, provided the timing is right. “If individuals feel anxious far in advance of an event,” she says, “it can motivate effort and preparation through a process called defensive pessimism; when individuals make negative appraisals about future events, they work harder to avoid potential negative outcomes and prepare more thoroughly.”

That’s the good news. But when anxiety is felt immediately before an event—whether it’s giving a speech, taking a test, or negotiating—it is often costly as it’s coupled with a lack of confidence and a loss of control. According to Brooks, negotiators who have such feelings “tend to make decisions that inadvertently harm their performance, such as making low first offers, responding quickly to counteroffers, making steep concessions, and exiting negotiations prematurely. Not to mention that a case of nerves simply takes the enjoyment out of the negotiation process.”

Many people find it hard to overcome anxiety whenever it arises. That’s not surprising, especially if the stakes are high. An inner voice may ask rat-a-tat questions: “What if my boss says I’m not ready for promotion? What if she loses her temper? What if I fail?” Fortunately, Professor Brooks has found a simple technique for transforming such feelings into something positive.

In a ground-breaking experiment, she gave subjects a task designed to make them nervous. She told them that they would sing, Karaoke-style, a difficult song in front of an expressionless stranger. The song, one of the most frequently downloaded selections on iTunes, was “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey.

Subjects were hooked up to heart monitors and sure enough, their pulses jumped up when they learned about the assignment. Just before they began, Brooks had people in one group say out loud three words. “When you deliver your line,” they were instructed, “really try to believe it. Here is your line: I am anxious.” Subjects in a second group went through the same protocol, but instead were told to say, “I am excited.”

The excited group significantly out-performed the anxious group, as measured by software that tracked the volume, correct pitch, and note duration of their singing. What’s impressive is how this self-talk, as Brooks calls it, had a positive effect even though it was prompted by someone else, rather than being spontaneous. Along with colleagues, she has validated the result in other settings, including public speaking, and taking math tests. As she explains, the simple statement sparks are a reappraisal of both the imminent event (for us, a negotiation) and one’s own internal state.

Trying to calm down is understandable, Brooks says, yet often counterproductive since, “physiological arousal—your racing heart and sweaty palms—is automatic and very difficult to suppress.” Transforming those heightened feelings from anxiety to excitement is much easier.

For a light-hearted demonstration by a reporter for the Atlantic Monthly, see this short video:


What we feel inside—the emotions and attitudes we bring to the table—color our perceptions and influence our behavior. Moreover, our feelings can be contagious. If we are anxious, others may grow tense. We if are centered, by contrast, other parties may become more balanced themselves.

The work of psychologists like Professor Brooks reminds us that it is possible to have some control over emotions—not stifling them, necessarily, but transforming them into positive energy that enables us to perform at our best.

Several years ago, in my MBA negotiation course, we did a session on improv, being quick on your feet. One of the exercises was “instant-expert” where I would pick a student to give a three-minute lecture. The rest of the class would choose a topic that he or she would know nothing about.

The first person—call him Mark—was given the topic of haute couture. You could see the shock in face, followed by anger. He trudged down to the front of the room and struggled to have anything to say. The three minutes passed slowly for everyone.

The second person to do the exercise was “Thalia.” Her face fell, too, when I first called on her. It darkened when she learned of her topic: the migration of monarch butterflies.

But even as she came down the three steps from the last row, her expression brightened. She turned her head, scanning the classroom with a smile. “I’m so thrilled to be here,” she said. “My one regret is that I have only three minutes to tell you about my life’s passion, the amazing monarch butterfly.”

She gave a terrific talk, drawing on what she knew about the insect (not that much), while weaving it her love of learning about the marvels of nature. Her classmates gave her a standing ovation. As she headed back to her seat, I asked her for her secret. She said, “I figured if I had to do this, I might as well give it my very best.”

Additional Resources

Next Module: First Offers and Anchors [10 min.]

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