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How to Diffuse a Heated Negotiation

 A lot of us are rightfully worried that no matter how much we prepare, our negotiations will derail into an unproductive debate or shouting match. Even when we go into negotiations with a collaborative and positive problem-solving mindset, there’s always a risk that things can get emotionally charged. You can feel it when it starts to happen: maybe you feel yourself getting emotional. Your blood pressure starts to rise, or you notice that you’re becoming angry or anxious. Perhaps your counterpart in the negotiations is doing the same. The volume might get louder and louder as things process, or you suddenly notice that one or both parties have started to yell.

Let’s consider an example from a company doing its annual budget planning. Laura, the head of sales, is planning her budget for upcoming year, and she’s meeting with Steve, the director of finance. Laura has asked Steve multiple times for revised numbers to plug into her budget. Instead of following through, however, he keeps returning with more questions. Laura’s draft is due to the CFO first thing tomorrow morning, so she sends Steve a meeting request to talk about what’s going on. Steve accepts but shows up 15 minutes late.

After explaining why she needs the numbers immediately, Betty asks what’s preventing Steve from just giving her the figures she’s asked for. He says she hasn’t shared enough information but he’s been doing his best to make sense of what she’s already provided.

Laura feels the heat creeping up her face and raises her voice: “I’ve asked you four times to give me those numbers, you showed up late to this meeting, and this is somehow my fault. Why can’t you just do what I asked?”

Steve can’t believe she’s not getting it: “I’ve been working on your numbers for weeks! But I can’t get you the final figures until you give me all the information I need. Don’t you understand that this is on you?”

At first glance, this scenario may not seem like a classic “negotiation,” but it absolutely is: it includes two parties with different incentives and interests who are attempting to reach an agreement about how to move forward. In this case a conflict has emerged, but it doesn’t need to hurt Laura’s and Steve’s relationship or Laura’s draft budget.

Emotions can heat up during a negotiation because there the stakes are high: people’s jobs, their reputations with their bosses, their personal confidence, the success of a venture, or even the future of the business may be on the line.

Typically, a negotiation becomes emotional when you and your counterpart aren’t communicating well. Maybe you misunderstood each other’s intentions or bruised each other by accident, resulting in someone feeling offended.

Whatever the cause of this combative turn, here are some key ways to defuse a heated negotiation:

  • Be aware of your physical reaction. Breathe deeply and avoid tensing up — especially holding your breath. Ground yourself by placing your hands on the table or your feet squarely on the floor. Research shows that these simple physical practices directly influence how your mind reacts. If you begin to wring your hands, you’re sending a message to signaling to the brain that there’s something to worry about. On the other hand, moving slowly and deliberately tells the brain to remain calm.
  • Listen attentively to your counterpart. Let them vent, if necessary. Many people need to let off some steam as a kind of release. After yelling or banging the table, there’s a better chance that they will calm down by themselves. Don’t feel compelled to respond to an outburst. If you can, let go of it and turn to a more productive way of interacting.
  • Show him/her that they’ve been heard. Calmly (and fairly) paraphrase what you heard. Acknowledging why your counterpart is upset typically helps turn things around. Often, people just want to be heard.
  • Show empathy. If the other person is angry because of something that has nothing to do with you, acknowledge that it seems like a tough situation. You could even frame the issue as a joint problem where both of you can work together.
  • Learn more. If you’re the cause of the other person’s frustration, dig a little deeper to find out what’s happening and why. Make an attemp to understand what you did and how everyone might see things a little differently.
  • Take a break. If you’re the angry or emotional party, consider taking a quick lap around the building. Ask someone else on your team if they’d be willing to talk it through. A little stretching or deep breathing — even a couple minutes of meditation — can put you in more grounded headspace.

When Steve snapped back at her,  Laura took a deep breath and sat back in her chair, placing both feet firmly on the ground. Holding her body steady, she started to calm down but nonetheless noticed that Steve’s face was red and he’d crossed his arms.

Laura’s next step was to apologize for her remark. But she didn’t leave it at that. She also asked Steve why he was upset. She moved forward to listen and let him vent.

Steve revealed that he was under tremendous pressure since it was budget time. He admitted that Laura wasn’t the first person to get frustrated with him that week. He explained that he was missing his targets because management didn’t give him enough resources last year. He even shared a situation from 3 months earlier when he had asked Laura for help and had gotten nothing. Laura couldn’t remember what he was referring to, but she didn’t interrupt or become defensive; instead, she asked what the consequences had been. Having gotten all that off his chest — and seeing Laura’s evident openness to hearing from him — Steve quickly calmed down too. Laura watched, relieved, as Steve’s shoulders relaxed and he uncrossed his arms.

Now negotiations can proceed in a collaborative fashion!

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Emery Reddy