Extensive preparation is essential to any negotiation. But beyond an agile strategy and keen understanding of deal-making tactics, success at the bargaining table requires having the right mindset and a high degree of emotional intelligence.

In a recent lecture streamed via Facebook Live, Harvard Business School Online Negotiation Mastery Professor Mike Wheeler explored the role emotions play in dispute resolution, and the ways those feelings can be channeled to create value and close deals.

In his talk, Wheeler shared key findings from his research at HBS, insights from seasoned negotiators, and practical tips you can use to emotionally prepare for your next bargaining session.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from his lecture.

If you weren’t able to tune in for the live lecture, check out a full recording of it below:


How Do Emotions Affect Negotiations?

The emotions you feel when entering a negotiation can have a profound impact on the outcomes you achieve. To expand on this idea, Wheeler reviewed the findings of a study he conducted with colleagues, which involved in-depth interviews with experienced negotiators regarding their thoughts and feelings about the bargaining process.

Participants were asked to assemble collages of images they associated with negotiation. The study revealed that even experienced professionals have mixed and conflicted feelings about negotiation, including anxiety over unknowns and self-doubt about performance.

Wheeler tied these findings to research by HBS Professor Alison Wood Brooks, who found that anxious negotiators tend to make more modest first offers, have lower expectations in deal-making discussions, and exit situations early, among other pitfalls.

While anxiety can come with high costs in negotiation, it can also be channeled to achieve success. Brooks’s work has shown that when people tell themselves they’re excited, rather than anxious, before important tasks, they’re more engaged and perform better.

Whether you’re a practiced negotiator or someone who typically shies away from the bargaining table, Wheeler said this insight is important to keep in mind.

“There’s a way you can take that adrenaline raised by stress and anxiety, and instead of working hard to push it down, you can use it as excitement and engagement,” Wheeler said. “When you feel the little upwelling of anxiety, name it—even though you know it’s a gambit. ‘I am excited.’ It will help inoculate you against the problem.”

Emotional Intelligence in Negotiation

In addition to these research findings, Wheeler shared video clips from his online course featuring seasoned negotiators who illustrate how emotional intelligence can be applied in real-world situations.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, spoke about how his time working for a suicide hotline taught him to “listen between the lines” and pick up on what callers were implying, rather than explicitly stating, with their words. He said this enabled him to more quickly guide people through their decision-making processes and navigate their emotions.

Exercising emotional intelligence has also played an important role in the career of Erin Egan, who currently works at Amazon. In her previous role with Airbus, Egan said she learned a lot about negotiation dynamics by observing how people behaved during meetings.

“What’s interesting is what’s not said, and body language,” Egan said. “You can learn a lot when someone says something and watching how other people on their own team respond. That’s extremely telling. You can understand if everybody is aligned.”

These examples, Wheeler said, demonstrate how critical emotional intelligence is to negotiation. In order to be successful, you need to not only identify the emotions that you and others are experiencing, but effectively understand, use, and manage them.

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How to Emotionally Prepare for Negotiation

To help you put emotional intelligence into practice, Wheeler presented six questions you should ask yourself before engaging in your next negotiation:

  1. What do you want to feel going into the negotiation?
  2. Why do you want to feel that?
  3. What’s the best thing you can do beforehand to feel that way?
  4. What could throw you off balance in the midst of negotiation?
  5. What can you do to recover your poise?
  6. What do you want to feel when you’re done?

Even if you’re short on time, Wheeler said, running through these questions can help you calibrate your mindset and improve your likelihood of success.

“You always want to be well prepared at the bargaining table,” Wheeler said. “That means running the numbers. It means getting a sense of whom it is you’re going to be negotiating with. Reading the contract language; the proposals back and forth with great care. But you also need to be in the right frame of mind.”

To close his presentation, Wheeler fielded a range of audience questions, including:

  • How do I stop over-expressing my emotions with facial expressions, body language, and tone during negotiations?
  • What is a good icebreaker to begin a negotiation?
  • How can I be assertive and, at the same, appear amicable in a negotiation?

Throughout his lecture and responses to these queries and more, Wheeler provided a wealth of practical tips you can leverage the next time you’re advocating for yourself or your organization in a negotiation.

Do you want to hone your negotiation skills? Explore our eight-week online course Negotiation Mastery, and learn how you can develop strategies and techniques to achieve success at the bargaining table.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in content writing and social media. He has a background in video production, and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, cycling, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.