PART THREE: Responding to Anger, Fear, and Sadness

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.” Here are a few proven techniques that can help you along the way.


Your Anger

As discussed above, our own anger can make us overconfident, aggressive, competitive and short-sighted.  While it can sometimes intimidate our negotiation counterparts into making larger concessions, it reduces the likelihood that others will want to work with us, and decreases our chance of closing a deal.  Repeat business and referrals are almost certain to suffer. While  anger displays can make male negotiators seem “tough,” be careful if you are a woman. Show too much anger and you’ll be seen as out of control or overly emotional.25

Combating  anger usually involves slowing things down and involving the thoughtful part of ourselves:

Planning - Before any negotiation, have a plan. Sit down with your client and decide on concrete, realistic goals.  Plan not only where you’d like to end up, but what concessions you’re willing to make – and which you aren’t.  Think about what the other side is likely to do and discuss your reaction.  Know when you would walk away, and what your alternatives are if the deal doesn’t work out.  Having a plan and agreeing ahead of time to stick to it introduces accountability, which has been shown to reduce the likelihood that anger will warp our decision-making.  Professor Lerner suggests using a mediator to hold the parties accountable during settlement talks.26

Pausing - When emotions run high, it’s a good idea to take a break – what Max Factor III labels a “negotiation time out,” to cool down. During this time, you and your client can review your and goals, which will engage the reasoning, rather than the reacting, parts of your brain, and decrease the influence of anger.27

Replacing emotions - Dr. Randy Chittum of Georgetown University notes that it’s hard to have two opposing emotions at once, and recommends dealing with strong negative emotions by focusing on what makes us grateful or happy.28

Finally, take an analytical approach  to your emotions - Think carefully about what they are, whether they are helpful, and what triggered them. Once again, taking a reasoned approach will help disengage the emotional, anger-producing part of the brain, known as the amygdala. Zimmerman and Lerner29 also suggest that the effect of incidental emotions can be reduced by:

1) Listening to the opinions and contributions of others, which engages the rational part of the brain.

2) Treating each situation as unique. This will require a conscious effort, because we are hard-wired to treat past occurrences as predictive of future events.

3) Diagnosing your emotions. This step mirrors Chittum’s admonition to be analytical.30 What are you feeling and why? Does it make sense in context? Is your fear, anger, or other emotion a clue that some issue has not been addressed? Don’t ignore your emotions. Be attentive to them.31

Another’s Anger

Not only does a counterpart’s anger make them less rational and less likely to close the deal; witnessing that anger can make you a worse negotiator, as discussed above. Knowing how to diffuse anger is therefore a vital negotiating skill.

Stay calm and pleasant- Although it’s easier to ‘catch’ a negative emotion than a positive one,32 modeling positive behavior can help restore calm, because of emotional contagion.  Not only that, it will keep you from becoming angry in turn.

Ask your negotiating partner to explain their anger33 - Giving someone a chance to explain their feelings does two things. It helps you understand what you might do to remedy any wrong done, and it engages the rational part of the brain.

Pause - The negotiation time out – whether it’s a coffee break, a pause to use the restroom, or a brief stop “to check figures,” works as well at diminishing others’ anger as at helping calm our own.34

Acknowledge the emotion - Sometimes calming an angry counterpart is as simple as acknowledging the emotion. People want to be heard: “Bob, from what I understand, you’re angry about the rent escalation clause of the lease. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about that …” (or, “Here’s what I can do…).” A statement like this is not a concession or an agreement; it is a recognition of feelings.35


Your own fear

Everyone is afraid at times.  It’s a natural emotion, and sometimes beneficial – it keeps us from doing dangerous things, and makes us more careful before we act.  But too much fear can make us act too rapidly or freeze us in our tracks.36 Here’s what you can do to minimize your own fears:

Prepare - Fear often springs from feelings of weakness or unreadiness.37 A key to dealing with our fear is preparation and planning. Know your situation thoroughly. Be honest with yourself about the weaknesses in your position and do your best to strengthen them before your negotiation.  Know how you will respond if each weakness is raised.

Generate as many alternatives as possible - Sometimes fear comes from having poor alternatives to success – what negotiation teachers call a poor BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). “I must buy this house or I will have no place to live soon” puts a buyer in a very weak negotiating position. Conversely, “if I do not buy this house I can a) buy the one on Maple Street, b) extend my current lease c) move in with Mom, or d) rent the apartment down the block” gives the buyer much more flexibility and therefore much more bargaining strength.  Generate concrete, specific alternatives that you know are achievable. Vague or impractical alternatives won’t give you the confidence you need to move forward.

Act confident - As discussed in the section on emotional contagion, above, we sometimes feel emotions “from the outside in.” If we act physically as if we are confident and happy , we will feel confident and happy.38

Finally, some of the same techniques that combat anger can work against fear too. An analytical approach to your fear can disengage your emotions. Likewise, replacing negative feelings with positive ones or pausing for a negotiation time out will help conquer your fear. Lawyer and psychologist Delee Fromm recommends looking at humorous comics or reading something that always makes you laugh if you are feeling negative before a negotiation.39

Another’s fear

While fear could cause a counterpart to accept a deal favorable to you in order to resolve the matter quickly, because fear makes people pessimistic and can paralyze them, it is a threat to        most deals no matter which party is fearful.  So learning how to calm such fears is an important skill for the frequent negotiator.  In addition to the techniques discussed above, Professors Allison Brooks and Maurice Schweitzer of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recommend empathizing with the fearful person and sharing our own fears as techniques to reduce others’ counterproductive fear.40 Here’s a brief example of how some of these techniques might work in practice:

Let’s say your client, Terry Timid, gets nervous about her ability to pay the mortgage on the house she wants.  Here’s how a conversation might go:

“Terry, you seem worried about whether  you can make the payments on this house (acknowledgment of the emotion).  I understand that feeling very well; it’s a big commitment to make (Empathy). I remember how worried I was when I bought my first house (sharing emotions.) But let’s go through the numbers again. Your income is more than enough to cover your expenses, and your job is stable.  You pay almost as much in rent now and have no mortgage interest tax deduction. What is it about the situation that scares you (engaging the analytical part of the brain)? If you can make a larger down payment your monthly payments will be lower.  Let’s talk about ways you could do that (generating alternatives).”

This brief vignette should give you confidence. The techniques are simple. Five of them are exemplified here and will be easy for you to use.


Your sadness

Sadness is a low-status emotion that can make you seem weak and incompetent just when you are motivated to change your situation by resolving things quickly.42 As a negative emotion, it will likely increase competition and hardball tactics while  decreasing joint outcome. 43 Clearly, a sad negotiator starts at a disadvantage.

Although Professor Lerner and others have studied what sadness does to us as negotiators, little specific has been written about combating sadness in the negotiation context.  However, Professors Garg and Lerner recently showed that an increased sense  of control will diminish the effects of sadness, which seem to flow from feelings of helplessness.44 The study found that giving sad subjects choices made them behave more like emotionally neutral ones.  What this means for us as everyday negotiators is that dealing with sadness is much like dealing with fear. If we focus on preparation, and especially on generating alternatives, our sense of helplessness will decrease.

In addition to reducing feelings of helplessness, choices by definition engage the analytical part of our brain.  We must evaluate the pluses and minuses of each choice in order to choose.  Of course, acknowledging the emotion and focusing on opposite (happy) emotional experiences can also help.

Others’ Sadness

There is little available research on alleviating others’ sadness in the negotiation context.45 Fromm46 suggests that acknowledging emotions, adopting an analytical approach, taking a negotiation time out or substituting positive emotions for negative ones will help fight any strong  counterproductive emotion. In addition, in this context planning and accountability should also restore a much needed feeling of control.

by Scott Van Soye

Other Articles in this Series—

PART ONE: Impact of Emotions in Negotiations

PART TWO: Identifying Emotions in Negotiation

PART FOUR: Responding to Guilt, Disgust, and Happiness

25 D. Fromm, “Dealing With Your Emotions in Negotiations”
26 Jennifer Lerner, “Negotiating under the influence” Harvard Negotiation Newsletter (June 2005) at 1-2.
27 Id. Fromm, D. “Emotions and Negotiation, Part II: Dealing with Strong Negative Emotions”  (last visited 9/17/11) 
28 Chittum, K.R., “Anger: Managing the Amygdala Hijack” (2007)  (last visited 9/17/11)
29 Zimmerman, P., & Lerner J. S. (In Press). The emotional decision maker    Government Executive  (last visited 9/17/2011)
30 See Chittum, supra, at Endnote 28
31 See Zimmerman and Lerner, supra, at Endnote 29.  Though Zimmerman and Lerner address this advice to incidental, or “hangover” emotions, their logic is equally applicable to all emotions. 
32 Barsade, 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)
33 Fromm, supra, at Endnote 25
34 Id.
35 Gray, B. (2003), Negotiating With Your Nemesis. Negotiation Journal, 19: 299–310
36 Adler, Rosen & Silverstein, supra;  Brooks, A M. and Schweitzer, M. E., supra,.
37 Fear Van Kleef, (2007) supra; Adler, Rosen & Silverstein, supra; Lerner and Keltner, supra,.;Posner, E. and A. Vermeul, “Accommodating Emergencies” 56 Stan L. Rev. 605; G. Riva, M.T. Anguera, B.K. Wiederhold and F. Mantovani (Eds.) supra,.; Brooks,A M. and Schweitzer, M, E ., Can Nervous Nelly Negotiate? How Anxiety Causes Negotiators to Exit Early and Make Steep Concessions (February 2010). IACM 23rd Annual Conference Paper. Available at (09/19/11)
38 Barsade, supra, at Endnote 32
39Fromm, D. “Emotion in Negotiation, Part II: Dealing with Strong Negative Emotions.”   (last visited 9/17/2011)[40]   A M. and Schweitzer, M, E supra,. at Endnote xi
41 Sadness P. J. Carnavale, & A. Isen “The Influence of Positive Affect and Visual Access on the Discovery of Integrative Solutions in Bilateral Negotiations.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 37, 1-13, (1986); F.G. Ashby, A. Isen & U Turken, “A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition.” Psychol  Rev. 1999 Jul;106(3):529-50; Carnevale, P.J. January 2008. Positive affect and decision frame in negotiation. Group Decision and Negotiation, 17(1): 51-63. G. Riva, M.T. Anguera, B.K. Wiederhold and F. Mantovani (Eds.)  From Communication to Presence: Cognition, Emotions and Culture towards the Ultimate Communicative Experience. Festschrift in honor of Luigi Anolli IOS Press, Amsterdam, 2006; Van Kleef, G. A., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2004). The interpersonal effects of anger and happiness in negotiations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 57-76.
42 See “Stiff Upper Lip Hampers Memory,” (last visited 9/17/11)
43Jennifer Lerner, “Negotiating under the influence” Harvard Negotiation Newsletter (June 2005) at 1-2.
44 Van Kleef, Gerben A., “Emotion in Conflict and Negotiation: Introducing the Emotions as Social Information (EASI) Model” (IACM Papers, 2007),   (last visited 9/15/11)
45 Fromm, D. “Emotions and Negotiation, Part I.” (2007) (article404.html at p. 3  (visited 9/17/2011)
46 Guilt Van Kleef, (2007) supra.; Van Kleef, G. A., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2006). Supplication and appeasement in negotiation: The interpersonal effects of disappointment, worry, guilt, and regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 124-142.

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.