How to Work with the Element of Surprise in Negotiation

by Terry Taylor

One of the more interesting and challenging demands of any negotiation is the myriad decisions each of us must make when we negotiate:  when to be tough, open, make an offer, give a little or lot, reveal information that might help or hurt our cause, stay silent…and so on.  With every decision we make, we must also manage how we use our emotions.  Can we show anger or frustration?  What about showing anxiety, happiness, sadness, or confusion?

Conventional wisdom for many is that emotions should be left out of the negotiation.  I challenge that as both impossible and unwise.  Emotions have both a positive and negative impact on our negotiations, so the task for us is to know the difference and use emotions to support the outcomes we are looking for.  Not an easy thing to do when we are feeling angry, frustrated, or disappointed. These kinds of considerations make emotions a complicated element of our negotiations, so I view this as a first article on the topic that will be followed by others in the future.  Your thoughts on the topic would be more than welcome!

The Element of Surprise  

Let’s start with the all too common element of surprise – the seed of many internal emotional and physical reactions.  Suppose someone unexpectedly says something that feels like a personal attack, or they make an unfair, seemingly ridiculous offer, or simply refuse to listen to you.  Surprises like these are dangerous, as we are likely to have a visible emotional reaction, particularly if we feel that we have done nothing to deserve them.  Emotional reactions, however, can be controlled.

I once watched an experienced negotiator (let’s call him Ken) deal with someone who was throwing four letter words at him as fast as he could think of them and he had done nothing to provoke this.  His eyes showed surprise, and he said…nothing.  Eventually, his counterpart ran out of words or energy, and a moment of silence was reached.  Ken seized this moment with a comment:  “I am surprised to hear all this.  But I really want to know is what do you want to achieve from this conversation?”  It was the other party’s turn to appear surprised, and, after a second short silence he calmed down and stated what he was after.  There were no more attacks or surprises from that moment on.  I discussed this later with Ken and he simply said that he was used to surprises and, for the most part, always ready for them. When one is mentally prepared for surprises, the surprise loses much of its potency.

Here are a few methods people have found useful when preparing for surprises:

  1. Mental coaching—repeat to yourself before you negotiate that you are going to accomplish your overall goals no matter what happens.  It is much easier to stay calm when surprised if you have something significant to focus on, a clear intention to achieve.  This is using your intention to control your inner tension.
  2. Mental rehearsal—imagine in your mind’s eye what you feel like when you are surprised. Imagine also that you do not verbalize any reaction, you simply let the surprise move past you like the wave of emotion that it is.  With practice, this prepares us for the unexpected, and gives us an opportunity to avoid reacting emotionally.
  3. Verbalize the surprise—this works best when combined with # 2 above.  After the initial reaction to a surprise, use the word itself, but follow with a question that helps you understand what the surprise is all about.  For example, Ken’s response “I am surprised to hear all this.  But I really want to know is what do you want to achieve from this conversation?”

Ken’s big advantage was his experience.  He mentioned that he had seen so many surprises in negotiations that almost nothing ever surprised him.  You may have noticed that when we are emotional, it always has a physical, or “body” element to it.  Emotions start in the body, not the mind.  Ken has reached a place where the physical reaction to surprise is not able to overpower his mental and physical control of it.  He may have strong feelings (indeed, he confessed that this is often true), but it no longer translates into a defensive reaction or emotional outburst.  While there is no perfect substitute for experience, emotional control can be expedited by mental practice.

The tools mentioned above can be practiced if you want to more quickly gain your emotional control when you negotiate or, for that matter, interact with any sort of difficult situation.  Developing our ability to prepare for, accept, and effectively respond to our emotions can give us tremendous strength when we are negotiating or working with others.

Growing Transparency

I have heard from and talked with many people at all levels in companies and organizations who have expressed their desire for more transparency in their work environment, including their teams, throughout their company, and with the world at large. Most of them are aware that transparency—open disclosure without reserve or secrets–is an idea laced with dangers: too much being said in the wrong time and place, risks of being misinterpreted by those who are not in the flow of decisions and activity, and, of course, what you say being used against you, either overtly or covertly. With all that being said, many of these same people still feel that we err on the side of too little transparency. Without it, they argue, debate, opinion, and differences are minimized, at the expense of continuous organizational learning, the foundation of innovation and productivity. They claim it is necessary that they and their colleagues need to be more transparent in their perceptions of one another as well as in and across departments. Add to that a desire for their company to be more transparent about decisions and finances. A dangerous game, indeed!

Choosing to be transparent is, like most human choices, an individual choice. Many team leaders have tried to mandate it, but they have sooner or later learned that mandates typically turn out to be meaningless. So why don’t more individuals make this choice if they recognize the dangers but still think transparency is important? When I have asked more in-depth questions, I have come up with two reasons from my conversations with others: 1) people don’t feel as though they can “do it” on their own. In other words, if someone acts from a transparent base, they often look to others to join them and are sadly disappointed that it doesn’t happen; there are few things worse than to look around and find that no one is standing beside or behind you; 2) there is a subtle belief that while transparency could change things for the better, it most likely won’t change things at all. Things are just too complicated and beyond our control, so why take the risk? A general shared feeling is that no matter what we do, we can’t really make a difference.

Keys to Growing Transparency

In my opinion, transparency cannot be installed…it must be planted and cultivated. And, like anything that grows, it progresses on a continuum from fragile to more strength. Here are a few suggestions for how to start and maintain it.

  1. Think network: find those in your company that share a belief in more transparency and have active agreements about fostering transparency between yourselves;
  2. Practice transparency in order to perfect it; the dangers are real and must be understood so they can be managed or mitigated. This will allow the “conditions for success” that transparency needs to flourish and avoid causing harm to you and others;
  3. Conditions for success—there are a couple of major supports that transparency needs to grow strong.
    1. The first is that it must become an expectation for everyone. A great approach to this is to use it as a guideline for your team meetings. Set it then discuss what it means, particularly in the person-to-person realm.
    2. A second condition is to give and take feedback (an essential part of transparency) between people who work together. You can start with having your team give feedback to each member on what they are doing to help the team as well as hinder the team, starting with the team leader (see The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni).
    3. The third condition is to put an unwavering spotlight on it. Ask your team how at the end of each meeting how it is doing on transparency and how more can be done with it. Allow for discussion of what people are learning about it.
    4. The fourth condition is to recognize it…mentioning any examples of transparency in action and the beneficial effects it produces. Talk about the courage it takes and the rewards it offers on a consistent basis, keep it top of mind.

Changing our way of working together is a difficult and challenging undertaking. I hope that the ideas above are food for thought and actions that move in a positive direction toward more transparency.