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Several years ago, while still cutting my teeth as a contracts negotiator, a good friend of mine encouraged me to take a few courses from Harvard’s Program on Negotiations.
One of the courses was “Dealing with Emotions in Negotiations”, and it touched on an issue that every negotiator will inevitably have to deal with, likely more than once in their career: having someone disrespect your authority in a negotiation.
As professionals, we carry certain corporate designations earned by way of merit and experience.
I’ve been an analyst, specialist, manager, and director. Each of those titles came with a set of responsibilities and a level of authority.
Some could view the responsibilities as a burden, but everyone has a strong emotional attachment to the authority they feel they’ve earned.
And when another person steps on that authority or tries to take some of it away, the response is equally emotional and often irrational.
A study was conducted on the behavior of drivers in mall parking lots, specifically with regards to pulling in and out of parking spaces.
The study found that drivers were more patient waiting for a car to pull out of a space if the car they were waiting for was more expensive than what they were driving.
Conversely, drivers would display a greater sense of urgency (and in some cases, real anxiety) if there was an expensive car waiting for them to pull out.
The car we drive, the suit we wear, our watch and our shoes all reflect our perceived level of authority with regards to those things.
As negotiators, we also have a perceived sense of authority and we’re constantly trying to assert it over our counterparts on the other side of the table.
And when we feel that our authority has been compromised, by way of a belittling remark or condescending gesture, it’s our response to the affront that often sets the table for the rest of the negotiation.
In the Harvard course, we heard the story of a former student who had to deal with a similar situation.
As a young, up-and-coming lawyer at a top law firm, she was given the task of representing a client’s management team in a critical negotiation with their Labour Union.
The Union had hired one of the top Labour lawyers in the country whose reputation as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator was the stuff of legends.
She scheduled a meeting at her office for 9 am on a Monday.
She arrived at 8 am to find a very nervous looking receptionist, who informed her that her counterpart was already there and waiting in the conference room.
When she entered, he was sitting at the table reading a newspaper. She walked over to him with her hand outstretched and said,
“Good morning! I’m…”
“I know who you are,” he interrupted without looking up. “Why don’t you grab me a coffee and we can get started.”
She froze. Her authority had been assaulted. With a few words and a subtle gesture, he’d reduced her role to that of a clerk and tilted the playing field in his favor.
What to do? Showing anger would portray her as emotional and inexperienced. Doing as she was told would be a sign of weakness.
She pulled back her hand, quickly gathered herself and replied,
“You know what, that’s a good idea. I’ll get us both some coffee while you grab the doughnuts.”
We’re human beings and we all have emotions. It’s how we handle our emotions that makes all the difference in negotiations.
Two more to go! Next week we’ll look at Skill #6: Understanding BATNA.
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