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When Emotions Get in the Way

If all negotiations were devoid of emotion, things would get resolved easily and efficiently.  Parties to a negotiation would always take a pragmatic view of things and have more awareness of what they want.  It is more likely that people would place their true goals on the table, and one would know the issues at hand.  In reality, however, there are frequently hidden feelings that impede resolution.  At times parties aren't clear about what they want, or don't know why they are pursuing a given end.  This is one of the factors that make negotiation such a complex process.

It is easy to think of situations in which emotions play an important role.  Planning a wedding, deciding whether to have children, and other life events are largely influenced by feelings.  At the same token, one would assume that simple transactions like buying consumer goods, renting a video, or putting out the garbage would involve few if any emotions.  As a result of my experience as a mediator, I have seen supposedly neutral incidents that have a huge emotional component behind them.  There have also been disputes that “should” be quite emotional, but are not.

In the business arena in particular, it is not considered proper to talk about feelings.  One is supposed to act in a professional fashion.  There are situations, however, when disputes cannot be resolved without delving further into the matter.

The first step in addressing this issue is to recognize that although you are dealing with a business, you are also interacting with people.  When someone is suddenly unwilling to participate in a straightforward transaction, assume there is something more there than meets the eye.  It could be that they had a fight with their spouse that morning, but it may be more complicated.  Start by asking questions.   People find talking about emotions threatening, so an open-ended “Is there a problem here?” may get things going.  Use active listening to respond to any concerns that might be expressed by rephrasing what the other person says.  “George said he would ship this yesterday” may really mean that George has become an unreliable employee and your negotiation partner may be feeling frustration over that.  

If the other party is not forthcoming about what is impeding his/her willingness to deal with the issue at hand, it may be best to be direct.  Name the behavior, and see if you're right.  “You seem angry or too upset to discuss this deal right now.  Is that right?”  At that point, you may receive an affirmative response.  You need to find out if you are part of the problem.  Ask if there's anything you can do to help resolve the matter.

Finally, if you are being bullied or threatened in a negotiation, the best choice may be to stop the discussion.  If emotions are getting out of hand, there is no reason not to offer to break for a period of time, set up another day to negotiate, or abandon the conversation altogether.

I recently mediated a case of property damage to an automobile where the driver came in and announced that she was dying.  Everyone in the room was taken aback, but it quickly became clear that this information had no bearing on the discussion.  Once the driver had expressed her feelings about this issue, it was apparent that there was no need for anyone else to address her revelation.  It was shocking to hear this news, but it was ultimately irrelevant.

In another matter, a printer did a job for an investment company and charged a higher price for the work without prior notification.  The company did not want to pay the bill, and had withdrawn its business from the printer.  At first glance, this appeared to be a simple business dispute.  However, it turned out that both parties were part of the Russian community, and those involved used relatives and friends for a number of their business matters.  This rift was far more important than the stated issue because it had an impact on the community.  Once the parties started talking and each expressed how they felt let down by the other, the matter was resolved, and they were able to start working together again.

The degree of emotion involved in a negotiation is really of vital importance.  We may not say which movie we want to see because we would prefer that our friends were happy.  At the same token, I mediated a lawsuit over a thirty-dollar fan, because principle was at stake.  If something simple becomes complex and difficult, read between the lines and try to figure out what is going on behind the scenes.  A relationship could be at stake, a promotion could be threatened; a quota may need to be met.  All of these issues will need to be addressed, or you may not resolve the matter.  Emotions make us all uncomfortable; particularly in business.  However, you ignore them at your peril.
Andrea Goldman, Esq.

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