Negotiate 1-2-3

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Learning Objectives Est. time: 10 min.

  • Recognizing triggers that can spark heated moments
  • Assessing techniques for coping with other people’s emotions
  • Maintaining your poise under pressure

How you can participate

  • Use the comment tool at the end of the module to add your insights and questions
  • Engage with fellow learners and share your best practices
  • Check regularly for comments from the creators of Negotiate 1-2-3

Overview and Introductory Case

Biographer Walter Isaacson described the relationship between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as being like "a scorpion dance, with both sides circling warily, knowing that a sting by either could cause problems for both."

The men were competitors, of course, as well as rivals in the public spotlight. But their two companies also partnered with each other, even as they vied for customers (and acclaim) in other arenas. For example, Apple contracted with Microsoft to write important software for some of its devices. Nevertheless, sometimes there were difficult moments between Jobs and Gates.

That tension came to head when Microsoft was preparing to launch Windows. Jobs felt that the new product blatantly copied Apple's graphic operating system. He was furious, even though both Microsoft and Apple had each borrowed liberally from an operating system developed earlier at Xerox PARC. Jobs summoned Gates to a meeting in Cupertino, California. In front of Apple's top management team, Jobs excoriated Gates, shouting, "You're ripping us off! I trusted you, and now you're stealing from us!"

Gates just sat there, however. Then he offered another way to look at it. "I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox," he said, "and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it."

Gates's response may have been spontaneous. Or, knowing Jobs' mercurial temperament, maybe Gates had it up his sleeve, ready to play at the right moment. Rather than fall into the trap of defending himself, Gates cheerfully admitted to being a thief but differed on who it actually was that he had stolen from. The comment also reminded Jobs that he had been in on the same heist.

Jobs' anger abated somewhat. Later the two men met privately and Gates demonstrated the new Microsoft operating system. Jobs was scornful about its design (with some justification) but recognized that he had little legal standing to thwart its release. But Gates's composure at the larger meeting was important in preserving the business relationship. Gates says of himself, "I'm good when people are emotional, I'm kind of less emotional."

In this module we'll explore heated moments in negotiation. When there is much to win or lose financially, unsurprisingly, tempers can flare. Feelings are all the more intense if parties feel personally wronged or matters of principle seem at stake.

When there's an unexpected outburst, whatever the cause, others must choose how to respond. Should they counterattack, apologize, or simply ignore the threat or insult? Usually there's little time to weigh the options. Bill Gates notes the importance of maintaining one's poise in heated moments. As we will see, however, that doesn't mean being unemotional.

An archival drawing of a brawl in Congress between Lyon and Griswold, Philadelphia, Feb. 15, 1798.
Brawl in Congress between Lyon and Griswold, Philadelphia, Feb. 15, 1798.

First, we will analyze another emotional explosion at a business meeting, this one involving sports agent/promoter Donald Dell and executives of the company that makes Head tennis racquets. You will watch a short video clip and then answer a series of questions. To begin, click the button below. (Note: this activity will open in a separate tab in your web browser.)

Begin by watching the video clip below that describes the situation and then answer the poll questions (on the next page) about how you think Donald Dell should respond. You’ll then have the chance to see a second video clip that reveals how he actually handled the situation.

To see how Dell actually responded, view the video clip below. So that you can put yourself in Dell’s position just before the door flew open, the clip rolls back to a point where the meeting is going smoothly.

Click for Final Analysis

Dell’s response was a hybrid of options three and one. The humor element is obvious, but the joke has a point, as well. He reminds the CEO (Pierre) that his client, Arthur Ashe, has unique talents and global fame. Dell says this with a smile on his face, but the message is clear: Ashe commands higher pay than anyone else in the room.

Equally important is what Dell didn’t do. He didn’t take the CEO’s outburst as a personal attack. Getting into a shouting match wouldn’t accomplish anything. He remained seated rather than standing up (which might have been read as a challenge to the CEO’s status), and he didn’t freeze up (which would have been awkward for everyone there). By showing that he wasn’t upset or rattled, he quickly reduced the tension and got the conversation back on a constructive track.

Dell says that he “lives for such moments.” He likes pressure and enjoys challenges. Perhaps that reflects his general temperament. As an agent for tennis champions and basketball stars, he deals regularly with high ego athletes, sponsors, and team owners. (Plus, he was a competitive athlete himself.) Yet he also recognizes the importance of maintaining one’s emotional balance in tense moments. (You can learn more about him and his perspective on negotiation in his book, Never Make the First Offer (Except When You Should).

There are parallels between this confrontation and the one between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that we analyzed earlier. Both outbursts were unexpected. Dell had to be quick on his feet, just like Gates. Equally important, both incidents took place in front of other people—colleagues of the person who blew up.

In Dell’s case, it was important not to embarrass the CEO of the company in front of the marketing staff. Their loyalties were with their boss, not with Dell, but it was with them that he would have to work in the future. Dell certainly didn’t want to make the CEO feel compelled to defend himself in front of his own people. A touch of humor allowed everyone to back down. If the CEO had exploded in a private, one-on-one meeting, Dell might have been more forceful.

Negotiations often are emotionally fraught. Research by Kimberlyn Leary, Julianna Pillemer (and myself) identified the anxieties that many people have about negotiation, even before they get to the bargaining table, and how those feelings can spark aggression.

When the Tables Are Turned

It's one thing to defuse a tense situation that's not of your own making. But what if you're the person who did or said something hostile or foolish? Two things may be needed to set things right: a lot of brass and a friend like Kramer, the goofy neighbor on the old Seinfeld show.

Years ago, a young comic named David had the coveted but highly demanding job of writing for the Saturday Night Live comedy show. New material had to be cranked out each week. The rehearsal schedule was brutal and much of what got written ended up in the waste basket. Like many comics, David had a big ego and insecurities to match. He lobbied hard for his material. Sometimes too hard.

David had gone through a bad streak. The producers had scrapped a half dozen of his sketches. The last one was cut after dress rehearsal. Five minutes before airtime, David accosted Dick Ebersol, the executive producer, in the control room. Ebersol was already wearing his headphones and was intent on the imminent broadcast. Nevertheless, David lit into him, telling him everything that was wrong with the show. Then, in a flare of temper, he publicly quit. By the time he got home, David regretted his outburst. His next-door neighbor told him he was stupid for quitting a well-paying job that other writers would kill for.

"What can I do?" David moaned.

"Pretend it never happened," his neighbor said.

Monday morning, David showed up for the writers' meeting. His colleagues were too shocked by his arrival to say anything. It wasn't their place to challenge him (and they probably wondered what was going to happen next). Then Dick Ebersol came in. The writers' room was set up just as it had been every Monday in the past. Ebersol shot David a funny look but never said a word.

The punch line? Sometimes situations that seem irreversible actually aren't. It's just that we're so involved emotionally we can't see a way out. That's when we need a fresh perspective from a friend or colleague who's more daring than we are ourselves.

There's a postscript to this particular case. The David here is the comic Larry David, who later became the fabulously successful producer of Seinfeld and then the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The real life neighbor who advised him to act as though his tantrum never happened became the model for Jerry Seinfeld's fictional neighbor, Kramer. If this story seems familiar, maybe it's because Larry David later exploited it as a gag in one of the Seinfeld shows he later created.


Coping successfully with tense moments in negotiations requires self-awareness. On one level that means knowing your own hot button; that is, other people's actions and statements that could provoke you to respond in a way that is contrary to your own interests. The trigger might be a particular insult or it could be a series of dismissive remarks that betray a lack of respect. When you’re provoked, it is important to note first stirrings of irritation or resentment, so that you address the matter constructively before your self-control is diminished. And you might calmly decide that it's not worth responding to aggressive behavior.

While maintaining your own poise, to empathize with whoever has lost his or her temper. That doesn’t mean you have to respect the other person or feel sorry for them, but like Bill Gates and Donald Dell, you have understand the position they have put themselves in. For your own sake, you should help them help them back down gracefully.

If you haven’t already seen the module on Powerplays, check it out. It includes video clips of a woman negotiating with her boss for a promotion. In the face of various challenges, she maintains her poise very well.


Donald Dell, Never Make The First Offer (Except When You Should), (Portfolio, 2009).

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, (Simon & Schuster, 2011), pp. 177-179.

Kimberlyn Leary, Julianna Pillemer, and Michael Wheeler, "Negotiating with Emotion," Harvard Business Review, pp. 96-103.

Chris Voss and Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, Ch. 5, “Trigger the Two Words that Will Transform Any Negotiation,” HarperCollins, 2016.

Michael Wheeler, Ch. 5,"Presence of Mind," The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, Simon & Schuster, 2013, pp. 75-96.

Next Module: Agility [20 min.]

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