PART TWO: Identifying Emotions in Negotiation

Wait, I’m no psychologist. How can I be sure what emotions someone is feeling?

It may seem difficult to work with emotional issues during a negotiation. You might be thinking “Easy for him to say, but I’m no expert.” The fact is that you are. Humans are hard-wired to detect emotions in others.17 Think about it. You can usually tell if someone is angry, sad, or otherwise strongly emotional without exchanging a word. We can all ‘read’ people, and the better we are at reading emotions, the more likely we are to excel at negotiation.18 If you don’t know what emotions a counterpart is feeling, here are some tips:

A. Watch for typical signs

As Gerben Van Kleef points out,19 emotions act as social information. Usually, they are communicated by common body language patterns, some which are set forth in Table 3, below.

TABLE 3 – Physical Signs and Feelings

(Valence Research)



Physical Signs


Hands-on-hips posture, staring. pounding heart, sweating and rapid breathing; Loud, accelerated speech.

Depression/ Sadness

Fatigue; Weighted-down posture; Slouching, staring into space, a slow, hesitant voice and frequent sighing


Restlessness, pounding heart, rapid breathing


Aching muscles and headaches, tension in neck and shoulders; Sweating

With a little thought, you can fill in signs of emotions not listed here. For example, happy people usually smile, and a real smile always includes raised cheeks and crow’s feet around the eyes.20 And disgust is a complex bundle of reactions: We experience revulsion and often physically distance ourselves from the offending object. We feel nauseated and our heart rate lowers.  We wrinkle our nose and raise our upper lip. The lower lip is pushed out.  We may gag, cough or choke.21 By carefully observing the pattern of physical reactions, we can gain insight into others’ emotions.

B. Monitor your own emotions.

Emotions are contagious.22 Humans are social creatures. When we observe the actions and emotions of others, our brains activate ancient structures called “mirror neurons” that simulate the actions playing out in front of us. For example, when our companions smile, neural activity in our cheek jumps, so we feel some of what our social counterparts do. This may explain why we so often subconsciously mimic others’ facial expressions, body language, speech patterns, and verbal tones.23

Dr. Sigal Barsade of The Wharton School explains emotional contagion this way: “I see a smiling happy person, which leads to my automatic subconscious mimicry of her smile, leading to a self-perception and feeling of happiness, which leads to my actually feeling happy…[W]e usually think of emotion as originating only from the inside out: I feel happy, so I show this by smiling outwardly. Emotional contagion shows that emotions can also be produced from the outside in: When you see someone smile, it makes you smile and then makes you happy.  Emotional contagion has also been shown to occur at a conscious level through social comparison processes in which people look around and compare their affective moods to those of others in their environment and then respond accordingly.”24 The emotional contagion phenomenon gives us a tool for emotional diagnosis. If you are curious about your negotiating partner’s emotions, pay attention to your own.

How Do I Respond to Counterproductive Emotions?

You may be thinking “All this theory is fascinating, but I’m not an academic. I need to know what to do to maximize my chance of a successful negotiation in the event counterproductive emotions arise.” A few proven techniques that can help you along the way will be available in Part Three.

by Scott Van Soye

Other Articles in this Series—

PART ONE: Impact of Emotions in Negotiations

PART THREE: Responding to Anger, Fear, and Sadness

PART FOUR: Responding to Guilt, Disgust, and Happiness

17Fromm, D. “Emotions and Negotiation, Part I. (2007) (visited 9/17/2011) 
18Elfenbein, H. A., Foo, M. D., White, J. B., Tan, H. H, & Aik, V. C. (2007). Reading your counterpart: The benefit of emotion recognition ability for effectiveness in negotiation. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 31, 205-223. 
19Van Kleef, Gerben A., “Emotion in Conflict and Negotiation: Introducing the Emotions as Social Information (EASI) Model” (IACM Papers, 2007),  (last visited 9/15/11)   
20Ekman P, Friesen W. “False, felt, and miserable smiles.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 1982;6:238–252 
21Bennett, D. “Ewwwwwwwww! The Surprising Moral Power of Disgust” (visited 9/12/2011); Ekman, P, The Emotions Revealed; Times Books, New York 2003, Chapter 8, “Disgust and Contempt.” at 210-212 
22Barsade, Sigal G., The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups (October 2000). Yale SOM Working Paper No. OB-01. Available at (last visited 9/17/2011) 

Scott Van Soye is the managing editor of ADR Times. He is also a full-time mediator and arbitrator working with the Agency for Dispute Resolution with offices in Irvine, Beverly Hills and nationwide. He is a member of the California Bar, and practiced real estate, civil rights, and employment law for over twenty years. He holds an LL.M. in Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine University, where he is an adjunct professor of law. He welcomes your inquiries, and can be reached at or (800) 616-1202, Ext. 721.