Negotiating with People? It's a Matter of Reading Their Emotions

Negotiating with People? It's a Matter of Reading Their Emotions


by M. Picozzi (SDA Bocconi Fellow and Forensic Psychiatrist) and L. Caporarello (SDA Professor of Negotiation Practice)
Translated by Alex Foti

There's no question about it: the modern era of negotiation was born in failure. It was on 5 September 1972, when the kidnapping of athletes in the Munich Olympic Village ended in carnage, after the choice of privileging muscular response over dialogue with hostage takers. In many ways this tragic event is the "trigger" of the need to search for models and methods to at least be better prepared to deal with similar situations.

This experience poses the issue of training police forces for something that no one had ever thought of previously, by starting a project aimed at defining intervention protocols, entrusted to NYPD detectives Harvey Schlossberg, a degree in psychology and years of experience working on the field, and Frank Boltz, another police veteran. The two started defining the fundamental aspects of negotiation, starting with the first: effective negotiation is not possible if the personalities and motives of kidnappers are not well understood. The second aspect concerns the importance of the time factor: it is crucial to defuse the tension that always accompanies the taking of hostages, and the only way to do this is to slow down each step of the negotiation process. This is why Schlossberg and Boltz provided the effective definition of "dynamic inactivity."

Generally speaking, the fundamental aspects of any negotiating dynamic are the knowledge of personalities, skills and professional abilities of all the interlocutors, as well as the interests driving them to negotiate. Furthermore, knowing how much time the negotiating party has at their disposal represents one of the most significant sources of bargaining power. These aspects, especially the time factor, have a greater importance than in the past considering that, as in most interpersonal interactions, contingent negotiations are often mediated by technology.

In 1979, Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton started the Harvard Negotiation Project and picked up the FBI's work in the field of negotiation: it was no longer a matter of negotiating with kidnappers, but of engaging in the search for new practices to manage all conflicts and negotiation dynamics constructively, whether interpersonal or professional.

Since that date, contamination between the world of law enforcement and the field of management studies has been continuous: the limited time available (real or perceived), the level of information asymmetry, the emotional intensity of the subjects involved, the clarity or not of communication are all factors that contribute to increasing uncertainty and the level of stress in the decision-making processes that executives are called on to manage.

For this reason it is crucial to reduce the tension level, otherwise the interlocutor will not be able to grasp the value of the alternatives proposed; it is therefore important to understand whether the other's emotionality is part of his or her personality, or is conversely triggered by factors contingent on the current scenario.

According to the contributions of this literature, it is possible to divide negotiating interlocutors into three categories: directives, expressives and conflictuals. Directive people are assertive and controlled individuals who are quick-minded and focused on results. Past experience matters little to them, because what counts is to get the job done correctly and quickly. They are hardly inclined to listen, generally because they believe they already have the answer. With them, great patience is needed, but at the same time there must be firmness in maintaining one's position in a professional way, by always avoiding ironic remarks, which would be read as lack of respect.

Expressive people instead love the stage, but they struggle to maintain concentration; they are impulsive and dramatic. Personal contact with them must be established by recognizing their emotions. For expressives, seeing their emotions reflected means being understood, and being acknowledged is very important to them. Unlike the case of directives, with expressives humor and jokes can be opening keys.

Finally there are subjects that are conflictual. Conflictuals respond to crises with their right brains, the emotion-driven and action-oriented areas of grey matter, with its flight, fight or freeze response. For conflictual individuals, things are black or white, emotions are not integrated, others are blamed for their own faults and failures, and they often fall prey to fits of aggression. While managing conflictuals, one should avoid giving either warnings or advice. They would tend to be interpreted as disrespectful and critical. Also apologies are to be avoided. In the black-and-white world of conflictuals, admitting an error would be equivalent to saying you're always wrong. With them, you need to be empathetic and adopt the technique of active listening; as for communication, when a moment of particular difficulty comes, it should composed of short, informative, friendly sentences delivered in a firm tone.


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