Dealing with emotional people

“…and you’re a !&#$!@ and this lecture is a *#@!$ waste of time!”

The words coming out of this participant’s mouth are foul offensive to say the least. But yet all participants in the crisis negotiation seminar are laughing. In fact, lying there on the floor in front of everyone, even the student shouting these profanities could barely contain a big and welcoming smile.

I had told the student to tell me off to the best of his ability. And I told him to do so repeatedly while we changed his posture, our seating arrangement, and other aspects of the situation. As it turned out, lying there on his back made it quite difficult to keep the fight going. In contrast it was much easier for him to act aggressive two minutes earlier when we were face to face and two inches apart.

We ran this exercise in response to a participant asking the question: “How do you deal with emotional people?” When a person is in an emotional state, perhaps as a result of experiencing a crisis, he or she will have very little available attention for you or what you want. This typically makes it much harder for you to have the type of constructive dialogue that you probably prefer. Thus the key to dealing with an emotional person (or more accurately, a person who is in an emotional state) is to first influence that person to adopt a more rational frame of mind.

Many of the most powerful tools for achieving this are derived from crisis negotiation, and you will find several of these in our book, Negotiation Evolved.

Or you can keep doing what you do know. If you belong to the majority, then there is a pretty good chance that your favourite tool at present is to tell people to change their emotions: “Stop being so emotional”, “don’t be sad”, “watch your temper!” or “CALM DOWN!!”

…and you must really, really love this technique, because you keep at it even though there is no chance in hell that it will work 😉

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How our favourite thing ruins our negotiations

In the following piece, comedian Louis CK inadvertently – but beautifully – captures one of the key insights for why negotiations go off track:

So what is the insight? Our tendency to self-servingly pursue our favourite thing at the expense of everyone else.

We would certainly hope that the individual who Louis CK describes belongs to the minority in our society. The bad news is that when we look at a large sample of negotiations we discover that this exact behaviour is pervasive in negotiation. Unskilled negotiators consistently:

  • come up with one desired outcome;
  • pay exactly zero attention to what the other party or other people want;
  • pay exactly zero attention to how pursuing that outcome will effect the other party or other people; and
  • are inflexible and uninterested in compromising on what we want. Or as Louis CK summarizes it – we don’t want to settle for outcomes that only meet 99% of our criteria.

Starting negotiations in this manner predictably leads to the first of the four games that we cover in Negotiation Evolved. This is the game that has the lowest potential for creating value, and the highest risk of producing negative by-products.

Quite disturbingly – this is also the game that we observe in the vast majority of negotiations…