Emotions such as satisfaction and elation can be quite rare in negotiation, says Andy Wasynczuk, MBA Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. His teachings trace the history, theory, and research on how emotions can affect transactions between parties. Wasynczuk do so by using an everyday example of a work-at-home consultant ("Claire") dealing with an electrician ("Henry") over restoring power after a storm. They intentionally picked the situation as one to which students could relate, not that it is a simple situation emotionally.
Stressed out over lost work because of the storm, Claire is further annoyed when repairman Henry is three hours late. When he responds brusquely at her overtures toward friendliness and offers what she feels is an unreasonable price and timeline for repairs, she gets angry. Before long, both sides are yelling, and Henry marches out the door.
The question for students is: What could Claire have done differently to get a better outcome?
Wasynczuk should know—he served as chief operating officer for the New England Patriots for 15 years, where he was in charge of negotiating high-stakes player contracts involving millions of dollars.
He intuitively understood that emotions were an important factor in dealing with people as passionate as athletes. "The last thing I wanted to do was create an excuse for a player or agent to get angry. That would create a power struggle, which was a recipe for disaster."
Wasynczuk learned to enter into contract talks with a smile—and to rationalize away his own anger when a deal couldn't be struck. "If an agent was being greedy with me, they were probably being greedy with other teams as well," he told himself. "If the other team ended up paying that money they were making a mistake."
Take this simple exercise: Player A is given $20 and has to decide how much to share with Player B. Player B's only decision is to decide whether or not to accept what is offered. If accepted, Player B receives the offered amount and Player A gets to keep the balance. But if declined, both players end up with nothing. Rationally, B should take any offer—even as little as $1—that's more than nothing. And yet, whenever this experiment is performed, B consistently rejects the money unless it is at least a quarter of the total—$5.
"There is a very strong emotional response to the lack of fairness, irrespective of the right rational decision," says Wasynczuk. "The more we understand how people behave based on emotions, the more thoughtful and appropriate we can be in how we respond to them."
Anger, for example, is one of the most destructive emotions during negotiation—often causing deal making to break down as each side sacrifices its needs in order to save face. "It tends to start rising on both sides, and inevitably there is a point where it erupts," says Wasynczuk. "People walk away and say there's value on the table, but I don't care."
That said, anger isn't always a bad variable in negotiation. Deployed the right way, it can demonstrate passion and conviction that can help sway the other side to accept less. The trick is to direct the anger at the situation or problem—not the person on the other side of the table.
"Some students try and have a poker face and not react to the other side's offer, but that's not useful," says Wasynczuk. "If one side puts a ridiculous offer on the table, it's all right to get angry and say, 'I don't see how that would ever work.'"
On the flipside, research has found that entering negotiations with a positive attitude tends to lead to better outcomes—when both sides are agreeable and conciliatory, it builds a level of trust that can lead to information sharing that allows both sides to get a better deal. Happiness can be dangerous as well, since happy negotiators tend to accept less than they might otherwise be able to get.
In the case of client Claire and electrician Henry, what Claire doesn't realize is that while she is annoyed at her lack of phone and Internet access brought by the power outage, Henry has been working 18-hour days since the storm, and dealing with multiple homeowners all making similar demands, putting overwhelming pressure on his small work crew.
As that case illustrates, emotions can be powerful, not only in derailing a negotiation, but also in helping both sides come to better agreement.
"To strip away emotions wouldn't be desirable," says Wasynczuk —even if it could be done. "Emotions are an expression of how people are processing information, and can give a strong signal of how the mind is internalizing the discussion."
Managed well, they can turn a frustrating negotiation into one that is pleasant, productive, and even enjoyable.
Zahary T. Brown