Emotional Intelligence & Negotiating: Lessons from Harvard Business School

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Tips on managing anxiety and emotional preparedness for negotiation from Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler.

To be a good negotiator, you need a high Emotional Intelligence (EI).

This is the ability to not only recognize the state of your emotions, but those of others, and allows you to respond properly to the emotional situation without getting, well, overly emotional.

High EI is essential to effective negotiations that get the best results for all parties concerned, maintains Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler.

(Curious about your own EI quotient? Take this short quiz. Once you're finished, come back and see how you can apply your results to negotiation tactics.)

Related Article: Emotions vs. Information on Business Decision Making

Steve Jobs and Bill GatesImage via Wikipedia

Wheeler recounts the story of a contentious meeting between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs at the height of the competition between their two companies (even though Microsoft and Apple actually did business with one another). Jobs accused Gates of stealing what was then the new graphics interface of Windows from Apple.

If you know anything at all about Steve Jobs, you know he was not a quiet man. Gates remained calm and, rather than yelling back, replied, “I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out you had already stolen it.”

Besides being a funny retort (who knew Bill could be funny?), Wheeler notes that by keeping calm and making a valid point that neither Apple nor Microsoft has invented the GUI that Xerox pioneered, it reset the tone. Instead of escalating confrontation, the meeting calmed down and both men were able to discuss their different points of view more productively.

As Wheeler puts it, “The heart of EI is self awareness, the capacity to sense the first stirrings of anger or anxiety. That awareness, in turn, must be coupled with an understanding of what kindled that particular response…if we dig deep enough, we sometimes see that our own attitudes are the real source of visceral response.”

Related Article: 5 Quick Tips for Business Lease Negotiation

Keeping Your Cool in a Negotiation

Negotiations can involve heated discussions, and the difference between a deal and a deadlock is whether you can keep your cool even when emotions threaten to break the thermometer. According to Wheeler, emotionally intelligent people are effective negotiators because they:

  • Identify the emotions they and others are experiencing
  • Understand how these emotions affect their thinking
  • Manage emotions, either by diffusing them or intensifying them
  • Leverage emotional states to work towards mutually satisfying outcomes.

Wheeler’s research shows that people who are not good at negotiating tend to experience high anxiety, caused by a sense of lack of control and unpredictability about how the course of negotiations will unfold. People in this emotional state tend to respond more quickly to counteroffers, and consequently settle for less than optimum outcomes, just to get the negotiations (and associated anxiety) over with.

Okay, sometimes we can’t help how we feel. If we’re anxious about being in negotiations, we can’t just “decide” to not feel anxious. Wheeler suggested strategies to cope include:

How do you want to feel and why?

Well, ideally you want to feel confident, and one way to feel confident is to be fully prepared. Know what you want to achieve, and to what degree you are willing to compromise.

To what extent do you have to modify your own emotional state to get in tune with other attendees? Maybe you don’t want to come on too strong, or maybe you don’t want to seem too accommodating.

What can you do to put yourself in the desired emotional state?

It’s going to be different strokes for different folks. Some people listen to music (relaxing music to get relaxed, heavy metal to get pumped), others meditate, others go to the gym. Try to visualize the situation and you performing your best in that situation. Whatever you do, the goal here is to achieve a state of confident relaxation.

Take a break during the negotiations.

If things aren’t going your way or someone is irritating you, just take a break. That way you don’t respond in an emotionally inappropriate way to what’s bugging you. Use the break time to re-evaluate and consider how you can get back on the track you want

It’s not enough to identify your emotions, you must manage them.

There’s always someone who can push your buttons. Merely knowing this is the case doesn’t prevent those buttons from getting pushed. Managing how you react when those buttons are pushed determines whether you or that someone else dictates the course of negotiations and the final outcome.

For further education on emotional intelligence and the art of negotiation, you can download Wheeler’s Negotiation 360 app. While you won’t be able to negotiate the $2.99 price, the reviews are all outstanding and you should get some emotional satisfaction out of your investment.

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