Most of us have had no shortage of bad feelings lately. So, many of us might be interested to learn of an important situation—negotiation—in which bad feelings are actually quite good. Put differently, bad feelings represent a necessary and useful component of many productive negotiations. So, the most effective negotiators tend to not only tolerate but bask in them—thereby making their task more negotiable.
Consider the following bad feelings and the reasons a knowing negotiator might indulge them:
Dissatisfaction: Negotiations rarely start until somebody, at some level, gets dissatisfied with something. You don’t buy a car until you realize you could drive a better one. You probably wouldn’t negotiate a job offer if it already fulfilled your dreams. Since dissatisfaction triggers the very need to negotiate, effective negotiators learn to appreciate it.
Anxiety: Truth be told, many effective negotiators feel quite anxious about negotiating. “Gulp! What’ll I actually say?” And if the anxiety persists into the negotiation, it’s probably not helpful. But at least in the short-term, anxiety may motivate them to prepare rather than winging it. Insofar as anxiety elicits the hard work needed to succeed, effective negotiators may learn to indulge it.
Irritation: The best negotiators don’t necessarily smile at their counterpart’s offers. They often recognize that those offers fall annoying short of a standard—perhaps a standard of fairness or a better offer. “But wait—my coworker makes twice that much!” And their irritation is critical, as it motivates them to respectfully offer a counteroffer rather than roll over and accept something suboptimal.
Fear: Even as they respectfully offer a counteroffer, many people experience abject fear at their counterpart’s reaction. “Are they gonna hate me? What if they say no?” Or maybe they offered a counteroffer a while ago and haven’t heard squat. “Do they already hate me?” It’s scary! But effective negotiators know they need to not only deal with their fear but bask in it, as withstanding adverse reactions and prolonged delays is often the only way to show resolve.
Guilt: Negotiators have many behaviors at their disposal, some more ethical than others. Since many of these behaviors fall into a gigantic grey area, negotiators must often consult their feelings—and particularly their feelings of guilt—to obtain an imperfect signal of ethicality. If an upcoming tactic elicits preemptive guilt, probably best to avoid it. If a past behavior seems skeezy, probably best to rectify it. Having had to make many tough ethical calls, the best negotiators are happy to hear from their consciences.
In sum, many bad feelings have an upside in negotiation—and the best negotiators know it. No one’s advocating for more dissatisfied, anxious, irritated, fearful, and guilty people walking around. We’ve got enough of those! Nor is anyone saying that all negotiations—or all of a negotiation—should feel bad. They shouldn’t! I’m simply suggesting that a moderate dose of negativity can be functional in negotiation—and even that experiencing bad feelings should help you walk away feeling better.
Where’s the line between bluffing and lying, persuasion and deception, salesmanship and unethical behavior? Negotiation scholars (myself included) have not often answered that question, largely because we focus on what negotiators do instead of what they should do. So far be it from me to answer conclusively here.
Nevertheless, a recent experience got me thinking about the topic and gave me some ideas about the factors that might at least enter into a discussion of where the line falls. So let me recount the experience and associated factors in hopes of making the broader discussion negotiable.
Some college friends and I recently took an annual guys trip, this year to Banff. Somewhere up in the Rockies, far from civilization and farther from cell phone service, we noticed the service engine light illuminated. Then, somewhere farther into the Rockies, we noticed that the fuel gauge hadn’t budged from full despite several hundred miles of driving. “Uh oh.” we thought. “What if the car’s broken or about to run out of gas up in the mountains?” And those thoughts caused some distress, interfering with our full enjoyment of Mother Nature’s majesty.
Long story short, the car didn’t break, and we didn’t run out of gas. We filled it up eventually, then monitored the engine sounds and gas gauge judiciously for the remainder of the trip. Finally, on our way to the airport, we decided to ask the rental car company (and let’s call them Nifty) for a discount. The question was how, and the discussion surfaced various tactics that may bring the line between persuasion and deception into sharper relief:
Objective facts versus subjective reactions: There was a discussion about claiming that we broke down in the Rockies and had to somehow summon a tow truck. There was also a discussion about saying nothing of the sort but focusing on the distress caused by the fact we might have had to do so. The latter is probably more defensible.
Breaks with reality versus extensions of reality: There was a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service ever since the event (which we did a couple hours later). There was also a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service until getting closer to the airport (which we were, a couple hours later). The latter is probably more defensible.
Concrete versus ambiguous claims: There was a discussion about claiming that we often travel to Alberta and consider renting from that particular Nifty (a concrete and untrue claim). There was also a discussion about claiming that each of is a “road warrior” who travels to various locations with Nifty branches often (an ambiguous and broadly accurate statement). The latter is probably more defensible.
Verbs versus adjectives: There was a discussion about saying that we ran out of gas in the mountains, the operative verb being “ran out.” There was also a discussion about describing the event with colorful adjectives (my friend ultimately chose “horrific”). The latter is probably more defensible.
Commission versus omission: There was a discussion about arguing strenuously that the service engine light and fuel gauge were related, when we suspected the former reflected an overdue oil change. There was also a discussion about describing both symptoms and letting Nifty draw their own conclusions, none of us being auto mechanics. The latter is probably more defensible.
Again, I’m not here to offer concrete answers to tough ethical quandaries, and maybe you disagree with my assessments. But I hope this story and my thoughts at least help to bring some structure to your own thinking, as you grapple with the ethical quandaries in your own lives and negotiations.