The One Skill Leaders Use To Win In Conflict and Negotiation
by Mike X Huang, Executive Coach
“I don’t know what came over me. Before I knew it, I blurted out that if he didn’t want to change this habit of his, maybe he wasn’t as committed to the future of our company as I thought.”
A past client of mine told me of a time when he and his cofounder got into a heated argument over what others might see as relatively minor: buying flight tickets for business trips.
What started as simply a conversation over the best way to save on flights flared up over issues of how each founder was handling the finances of the company. This was the first real argument the two had in their partnership. As things became personal, the conversation devolved into an emotional negotiation that nearly broke up the company.
Have you ever experienced a time when emotions turned what should have been a simple negotiation into a monster that only left you with fires to put out?
Negotiations, conflict and crucial conversations happen all the time. As a leader, you are expected to not only be used to handling these situations but to absolutely SUCCEED in doing so. Yet every factor in your genetic make up counts against the chances of that happening.
In this post, we’ll analyze why this is, some myths to emotions in negotiations and what you can do to avoid impaling yourself the next time you find yourself addressing a matter of conflict.
How Emotions Make or Break a Negotiation:
I don’t think I have to show many examples of when emotions get the best of people and have them act irrationally to their best interests. But why does this happen? Why do we get so triggered? From gamers breaking expensive hardware to irretractable personal attacks in a boardroom, we see behavior that serves no purpose.
But is that really the case?
When I speak of being triggered, I’m referred to two specific emotions: anger and fear.
These two emotional reactions can be traced back to a part of our brain called the amygdala. This is an ancient part of our brain that evolved to create the infamous “fight or flight” reaction. Because this part is so instinctual, we react extremely fast to what the amygdala is saying.
Is someone threatening to steal money from you? Instant amygdala reaction. Is someone starting a fight with your friend at a bar? Fight or flight is your first thought.
In moments of conflict, we are primed to get this reaction. Many people see negotiation as a zero-sum game. If you get what you want, then I must be losing out.
Not only that but that amygdala has a special property where it MEMORIZES what has triggered you in the past. This accelerates your fight or flight reaction to the point where the actual event doesn’t even have to happen. If you witness a hint or even assume something could lead to your being threatened, then your amygdala reacts. Sidebar, if you’re interested in neuroscience as it relates to behavior, I’d highly recommend this book.
Talk about being set up for failure in conflict.
The Myths of Aggression Working in Negotiation:
You may have heard that being aggressive is better in a negotiation than being nice. That sounds like a pretty intuitive statement. After all, we don’t want to be taken advantage of, right?
There are studies that look into this very idea. One looked into whether or not having a “warm” attitude would give you better deals over price negotiation compared to a “firm” attitude. The result is consistent with our intuitive idea that being too nice backfires on you: warmer attitude messages ended up paying 15% more.
Anger does have its place in negotiation and conflict. But what you want to be careful of are the nuances around anger. These are leadership deathtraps.
Those skilled in conflict resolution and negotiation do employ displays of anger. However they do this in very rare situations. Why? There are hidden costs to anger and fear that are linked to a bigger picture than the conflict itself.
Respect: The moment you or your counterparty feels snubbed, game over. This often leads to the next reason.
Impasses: The only result that can be more costly than your making a concession is not getting anything done at all.
Reputation: If one side is viewed by third parties as weaker due to their showings of emotion, this damages their credibility for future negotiations.
Retaliation: Salvaging the relationship may be better than suffering a covert attack after the negotiation. Imagine your boss sending you to a place where careers go to die from your getting your way with HR.
Of course, there are times when anger is justified. If you use your emotions as a way of demonstrating how sincere you are about your position, this can help your case without leading to any of the costs above.
Anger and working towards what you want are also not dependent on each other. Just because you don’t give off an imposing, ticking time bomb vibe doesn’t mean that you can’t be firm and avoid creating a compromise that you end up hating.
Recognizing Your Triggers During Conflict:
The physical signs of anger tend to be consistent across everyone: a rapid heartrate, tensing muscles, sweating and/or redness in the face. Fear also has a similar reaction: along with shaky limbs, a trembling voice and queasiness.
But other than these signs, how can we tell that we are getting triggered? Better yet, how can we tell if our counterparties are getting triggered, which can also blow up the negotiation?
For ourselves, we must learn to recognize our own warning signs. How anger starts internally may look different from person to person. Everyone also has different triggers.
The first step is developing the self-awareness and emotional monitoring to figure out what sets you off, why it does and what that looks like to other people.
If you happen to know that people being late to a meeting sets you off, consider why that is and how to prevent that from impacting the contents of the meeting. If someone rolling their eyes shoots up your blood pressure, think about how you are giving up control of your emotions to that person.
One particular bias I want to point out is negotiator’s bias. This is the idea that we are always fair and our counterparty is not. We see everyone else as being hostile, competitive and trying to pull one over us, while we see ourselves as being fair and completely agreeable. This sets you up for being offended when your position isn’t viewed as the innocent and fair stance you thought it was.
This, along with your own triggers, are what you want to look out for if you want to develop more of a leadership presence. Trust, respect and charisma all come out when you become adept with controlling your triggers.
Once you gain this awareness, you can start to take steps to work with your emotions instead of being a puppet to them.
Next Level Solutions To Beat Your Triggers:
Once you start to recognize your triggers, there are a variety of tactics you can deploy so that they don’t impulsively affect your goal of getting the conflict to a successful resolution. I have 3 solutions here that you can start using right now.
(1) Work cooling down periods into your negotiation. If you recognize that feelings of anger or fear are starting to affect your thinking and speaking, then you can call for something as easy as a restroom break.
(2) Get feedback about your behavior. You want to build in people and processes that give you access to how others see your behavior. You can take this data and compare it against how you see yourself. Do you see yourself as calm but the rest of the company doesn’t? Maybe you want to take a look at why there is such a big gap. Self perception is a large gaping weakness for almost everyone. Being offended at getting feedback works against you and prevents you from getting honest and unbiased data on yourself.
(3) Meditation is a superpower that people far more successful than you deploy every day. I personally recommend either mindfulness meditation or transcendental/Vedic meditation. The former tunes you with your breath as a way of coming back from being triggered. The latter broadens your mental and emotional awareness so that you avoid being pigeon holed into an unhelpful perspective. Here is who I learned from.
Bonus: Get a coach. If you really want to invest in yourself, a coach can get you in touch with your buttons, develop new habits in place of your triggers and expand your awareness not only with your own triggers but with what sets off others as well. This is the easiest system to put into place that encompasses all the above solutions.
In the end, those two cofounders worked out their “little scuffle” as they now refer to it. In another world, that could have spelled the beginning of the end for their partnership. But because they had the awareness, feedback and system in place to recognize their triggers, they came back from the experience stronger than ever.
What about you?