Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face – Mike Tyson
A few years ago, I was punched in the face by a customer. Not literally, thankfully. I was in contract discussions with an important customer for a strategic project that would have set us up well for the future. Together with the team, I spent days preparing. I was ready with multiple scenario models, the price sensitivity analysis, the giveaway terms and the deal-breakers. I knew our negotiation levers and had a clear idea when to pull them.
As I sat across the table from the customer, let’s call him Ben, I was confident of my plan and was ready to go. Ben, however, had a totally different plan. As soon as we finished with the morning pleasantries, he came off the ropes swinging and started attacking. He growled at the payment terms, he scoffed at the insurance clauses, he threw his hands in exasperation at our markups. He was angry and he made it very clear with every slammed fist and pointed finger. I did not even get the chance to start! I sat dumbfounded in my chair, palms sweating, mouth open like a fish out of water gasping for air, not knowing what to say. My negotiation plans evaporated with each angry swipe from Ben. I was just punched in the face.
Some people are born with a natural gift to dodge and duck in these situations and to stay on their feet. I am not one of them. And from having been in many other negotiations, the majority of people aren’t as well. Of course, a more seasoned negotiator would have managed the situation better, but they would have gone through their fair share of ‘getting punched in the face’ earlier on in their careers as well. The point is, anyone who has done any form of negotiations would experience this. Whether it is to close a sales deal, or to get resources for a project team, or to buy a car, or even to negotiate whose turn it is to change the diapers. We plan and strategise how we would want to negotiate and what we want to say, but when push comes to shove, when strong emotions overwhelms the discussion, the gap between what we want to happen, and what is actually happening is huge. In other words, there is Conflict. And typically, during negative Conflict, we lose composure and we lose focus of our plans. Worse still, we might shout back!
So what do we do to stay on track?
Start with ‘Be Open’. This is the first of 3 skills in the Leading Out of DramaTM model by Next Element, to turn negative Conflict into a positive one. The Open skills is about being honest with your emotions, and expressing them in a non-threatening way. It is about being authentic and verbalising these emotions to the other party. Essentially, it is about labelling the emotions. Research done by UCLA psychologist Dr Matthew Lieberman and team (Lieberman, 2007)1 found that labelling emotions disrupts the intensity of the emotions in a person and in the situation. They discovered that when people put their feelings into words, the emotions become less intense. Labelling emotions creates a sense of vulnerability and safety, which then paves the way in helping to diffuse a tense situation.
So if I could turn back time with Ben, an Open response might have been “Ben, I see that you are upset with our contract terms. Is that right? I feel anxious that we aren’t on the same wavelength.” What this does is it labels both Ben’s emotions and mine. Ben, hearing his emotions said out loud, will realise that it has had the intended effect (if the anger was planned) or that his behaviour was having a negative impact (if it wasn’t planned). Either way, it allows the conversation to move away from the negative emotions and move to the next step, which is to find a solution. At the same time, labelling both Ben’s anger and my anxiety makes the emotions less intense for me, thus helping me to regain composure, get back on my feet and to re-focus on my plan.
A few months after that episode, I was in an internal negotiations to get a deal across the line with the executive team. It was a feisty affair, with the senior executive letting his anger run riot by shouting at the team about events not related to the deal. Keeping the ‘Be Open’ skill and the UCLA research in mind, as the executive took a breath, I interjected and said “I’m sorry, I feel very uncomfortable with this. It seems you are very upset with the team, am I right in saying so? We want to address your concerns, will you be open to a call immediately after we get this deal discussion across the line?”.
That day, and in many other instances since, I proved that Dr Lieberman’s theory and Next’s Elements model actually worked! The executive stopped shouting, the anger in his voice dissipated, and in a low gruff voice, he mumbled “Ok, lets carry on”. He was still upset but hearing his emotions labeled helped lower the intensity and diffuse the situation. And it helped me maintain my composure and stick to the plan, which was to get the deal across the line.
We are never going to get away from the hard negotiation situations where the intensity of the emotions will threaten to derail your plans. However, the next time it happens, take a moment, Be Open and ask yourself “What emotions am I feeling now?” and to say it out loud to the other person. “I feel….”. You will find that by doing so, just like cold water over hot coals, it will diffuse the situation and realign the discussion. It will help you to recover, after you get punched in the face.
To learn more about Leading Out of Drama skills, Process Communication Model and how to use it in Negotiations, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Lieberman, M.D, Eisenberger, N.I, Crockett, M.J, Tom, S.M, Pfeifer, J.H, Baldwin, M.W (2007). Putting Feelings Into Words, Sage Journals, Vol 18, issue 5, 2007