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How to Deescalate Negative Emotions to Stop Negotiations From Getting Out of Control

deescalate negative emotions

Have you ever had a negotiation that turned contentious? It takes real skill to deescalate negative emotions. People have them all the time… with the angry boss, the upset customer, the stressed spouse, or the persnickety neighbor. 

As much experience as we get, dealing with upset people is never easy because not only are they upset, but their emotions can spill over to you. Then you have two upset people in a conversation and the chances of reaching a constructive solution dwindle down to near zero. Until you have de-escalated negative emotions, you cannot have a successful negotiation. 

So what can you do? 

Create Space for Rational Thought

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl

Just like when the oxygen masks drop on the airplane, first you put on the oxygen mask, THEN you help others put theirs on. In a heated negotiation, you need to make sure YOU are calm before you can calm anyone else down. 

This is harder than it sounds. In fact, you have biology working against you here. Even a perceived threat will trigger the amygdala. This almond-size gland sets your brain into fight-or-flight mode overriding rational thought. Daniel Goleman who literally wrote the book on Emotional Intelligence, calls this an “amygdala hijack.” Research and neuroimaging has shown naming a negative emotion has a neutralizing effect[1]. Dr. Dan Seigel theorizes, if you’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack, you’re being controlled by the non-verbal parts of your brain. Speaking about the emotions forces the brain to process the emotions with the verbal, more logical parts of your brain.

The first step in conquering an amygdala hijack is to identify it when it’s happening. When someone is yelling at you, how do you feel physically? Is your breathing shallow? Are your cheeks flushed? Is your heart racing? Is your skin tingling? How do you feel mentally? Do you want to run away? Do you want to yell back? 

All of the sudden, does “being right” matter more than solving the problem?

The second step in conquering an amygdala hijack is creating the space to choose a rational response. This takes practice. Taking a few deep breaths is a common method of calming yourself down. If you think you don’t have time to breathe… Listen. Listening helps you not only by giving you more information as to why your counterpart might be upset, but it also helps buy time to create the space to calm down.


Show You Understand Their Situation

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Baruch Spinoza

Once you’ve acknowledged your own feelings, and calmed down. It’s vitally important to acknowledge your counterpart’s point of view. Studies have shown that repeating back your counterpart’s words helps de-escalate a conflict because it shows that you have been listening to them. Repeating their words creates a sense of cohesion as it makes them feel heard. Psychologists call this the “Echo Effect” or “Mirroring.” 

This is where it gets tricky. Simply repeating their words gets varied results. You need to show that you comprehend their situation or their reasoning using their words. 

For example, in this sample conversation, repeating someone’s words without comprehension can go like:

Them: “I’m so mad you missed the deadline. Now we are in real trouble!”

You: “We’re in real trouble?”

Them: “That’s what I just said!!”

If you use their words to show you understand, it goes like:

Them: “I’m so mad you missed the deadline. Now we are in real trouble!”

You: “You’re mad about the missed deadline because you expect it will cause us trouble.” 

Them: “Yeah, the client said they’d leave us if they didn’t get it in time.”

Showing you understand will help them to move onto the next point, oftentimes revealing more information. In the second scenario, you showed you understood, and without taking the blame, positioned yourself on their side. Now you can work to help find a way to keep the client.

Identify the Positive Reasons for Negative Behavior

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

Marcus Aurelius

Have you ever noticed how we call crazy drivers on the road, “assholes” but when *we* drive crazy, it’s because we’re late, or we’re tired, or some other reason? In psychology, this is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error.”  This is our tendency to think of other people’s behavior as the result of their character rather than their situation. 

In a contentious discussion, it may be tempting to chalk up the boss being angry because they’re an asshole or the upset customer as “high maintenance.” Is their behavior the result of a fundamental character flaw? Chances are, your judgement is the fundamental attribution error at work. Unless you’re talking to the 1% of the population that are psychopaths, there’s a situation driving your counterparts behavior, and beneath that a positive emotion triggering that response. 

Your boss could be angry because they are passionate about the business and they fear it’s at risk of failing. The customer could be upset because they love their job and thought your product would make it easier to focus on the parts of the job they like. The persnickety neighbor could be demanding because they really love their home. 

Think about it. If your boss didn’t care about the business, they wouldn’t have either a positive or negative response to the situation. If your customer didn’t have aspirations, they wouldn’t care. If your neighbor didn’t love their home, it’d probably be a run down eye sore.

It’s not until you identify that positive reason driving their behavior that you can start thinking empathetically. You may not agree with their behavior, but you understand it. It’s not until you voice their positive reason that your counterpart feels understood by you. Remember how naming a negative emotion has a neutralizing effect? Well conversely, naming a positive emotion reinforces those emotions. Putting both you and your partner in a more positive frame of mind.

You could say something like:

“You put a lot into this business, and I can see you care a lot about its success.” 

Except don’t use this exact line in every situation. Listen to your counterpart. Reflect their words in your statement:

“You must have [their positive behavior] and I can see you [positive emotion] [positive outcome.]”

If we were to take our sample conversation:

Them: “I’m so mad you missed the deadline. Now we are in real trouble!”

You: “You’re mad about the missed deadline because you expect it will cause us trouble.” 

Them: “Yeah, the client said they’d leave us if they didn’t get it in time.”

You: “You must have worked really hard to get that client. I can see you really care about keeping them happy.”

Them: “I DID work really hard for them.”

Ask a Question that Elicits a Thoughtful Response

Statements of fact can be threatening. Whenever you can, ask a question instead .

Roger Fisher & William Ury

Now that everyone is calmed down, you’re ready to move on to the solution. Most everyone loves to talk about what they think should happen. However, this is a trap. An intoxicating and super tempting trap. If you put forth your idea, you are delivering a message. “Delivering messages” is when you put forth an idea in a one-way context. “We should do _________.” Is a message. Messages tend to be received as being “told” what to do. Unless your counterpart already agrees with you, messages threaten their autonomy. In “How to Have Impossible Conversations,” writers James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian say that most people tend to reject messages in favor of their own ideas.

Remember, it is necessary to It takes real skill to deescalate negative emotions before starting the negotiation. You’re at the beginning, not the end. You still need to understand what they want to do. How do you find out what people want to do? You ask them.

Ask questions that provoke a thoughtful response. At the Empathary, we call this a “Head Tilt Question.” Head Tilt Questions are kind of like open-ended questions in that they start with a “what” or a “how.” However, not all “what” or “how” questions are Head Tilt Questions. “What’s your name?” has a singular response. “How are you?” often gets “Fine.” You don’t want singular answers, you want thoughtful responses. In fact, upon being asked a Head Tilt Question people will literally tilt their head and look up before formulating an answer.

“What can I do to help?”

“What are you most concerned about?”

“How do you think we should solve this?”

“How did you arrive at this solution?”

These types of questions not only give you information about what your counterpart has in mind, they also help your counterpart feel more collaborative. People love to give their opinion on what should happen, and by asking these kinds of questions, you show you value your counterpart’s opinion.

To go back to our conversation:

If we were to take the sample conversation again:

Them: “I’m so mad you missed the deadline. Now we are in real trouble!”

You: “You’re mad about the missed deadline because you expect it will cause us trouble.” 

Them: “Yeah, the client said they’d leave us if they didn’t get it in time.”

You: “You must have worked really hard to get that client. I can see you really care about keeping them happy.”

Them: “I did work really hard for them.”

You: “How can I help you to ensure the client stays with us?”

Them: “Well, the deadline is missed. Would you be able to do something extra special so I can try to smooth it over with them?”

And now you can It takes real skill to deescalate negative emotions and get in full collaboration mode and on your way to a Positive Negotiation.

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