Dealing with the Emotional Negotiator

We were recently negotiating an annual agreement with a long-term supplier.  We understood they had a strong need to grow sales in a flat market and we had a strong need to lower costs to help drive those sales.  We explained how a new program would almost triple sales over the next two years and we wanted them to be part of that program.  We even offered to commit to a three-year deal – if we could get the needed reduction in cost to make it work.

In response to our request, the supplier became very emotional, lashing out at us for requesting the cost decrease and questioning the value of our partnership.  He became very heated and used some unfortunate words.  We understood that if we responded in the wrong way, it could either lower the value of the deal or kill it completely.

Many negotiators we observe will go to great lengths to avoid conflict and will often give their counterpart a concession with the hope this will ease tensions and cool things off.  Unfortunately, this can set an unsustainable precedent and relies on assumptions that are rarely true as to what caused the emotional outburst in the first place.

First, we did not respond with emotion ourselves.  Nothing will derail a negotiation faster than ratcheting up emotions that only lead to an argument.  Instead, we remained calm and collected and decided to demonstrate our appreciation of their concerns by acknowledging they were upset and asking clarifying questions as to “why”. We asked them to help us understand their concerns and how they viewed the market.  We asked why they thought a price reduction would be unfair in the context of the overall deal we were discussing.  This instantly reduced the tension in the room as our counterpart felt appreciated and heard.

Next, we took a short break so everyone could get a breather, some water and recompose themselves.  We asked them to think about how we might work cooperatively towards a solution when we came back together.  Even a short break will help ease tensions and lower emotions naturally.  Other times, a decision to get back together later might be helpful.

When we returned to the meeting, we asked “was there something we did to upset you?” Our counterpart said “no” and apologized for his outburst.  He then explained how he had just settled with his manager on the numbers for the coming year and this was going to create a commotion, even if the overall deal seemed reasonable. This was valuable new information that allowed us to craft a solution that would help him with his manager and position the deal as a win for their company.  In the end, we found agreement.

In short, never engage the emotional negotiator with an emotional response.  Instead, stay calm, ask clarifying questions and take a break to cool things off.  Most times, this will allow for reasonable negotiations to continue.  If the emotion remains, one must question whether this is the right deal for you.