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.