Defusing Heated or Emotional Negotiations

The ability to skillfully navigate difficult conversations is important for any negotiator. You’ve prepared for the negotiation by learning as much as you can about the other side and their point of view, uncovering some of their needs and motivations, and tailoring your negotiating strategy appropriately. You present a carefully calibrated offer that aligns your client’s goals with the needs of the opposing side but are met by an unexpectedly heated response. What do you do?

Follow these four steps to help defuse an emotionally charged response and turn the situation into an opportunity to support your position:

  • Listen to the entire response to find out the cause of the emotion. Is it truly an emotional response or a mere theatrical ploy?
  • Rephrase their statement in a neutral manner.
  • Respond to their position and consider how you can provide value that appeals to them.
  • Revise and restate your offer, taking into account their concerns.

Let’s look at each one of these in turn.

Listen to the Entire Response

If necessary, ask for additional clarification

Each time opposing counsel has a heated response, it provides an opportunity to uncover critical insights into their position, but you must truly listen to them. Do not even try to formulate an answer in your mind. Instead, try to understand their point of view as completely as possible — even if you don’t agree with it.

This is particularly helpful in cooperative and collaborative negotiations, as well as many mediation scenarios. When you actively listen, you create a subtle, positive impression with that person. By focusing on the speaker, they see that you are really interested in what they are saying and their concerns. Ask open-ended questions to fully understand their concerns and find areas of potential compromise.

Rephrase the Response

If it is emotional, deal with the emotion first

An emotional response to an offer can usually be divided into two parts: emotion and content. Respond to the emotional part first. For example, suppose you are helping your client negotiate to buy a small business with three locations. Your client intends to close site #1 after the sale. The business owner may object by saying, “This is a family business that I built over 50 years and the people who work at site #1 are like family to me. I’m not selling the business if they will be put out of work.”

You and your client must first respond to the business owner’s emotional tone. For example, you may respond by saying, “I understand how protective you must feel about your workers, especially since so many have worked with you for decades.” Then rephrase the content part of the opposition, to confirm your understanding and demonstrate empathy.

You buy yourself thinking time when you rephrase the opposing side’s response and also demonstrate that you understand their concerns and want to deal with them productively. Additionally, rephrasing their concerns helps your brain process potential solutions and helps the right answer come to you.

What happens when you don’t deal with the emotion first? History books are full of examples of negotiations and agreements that have fallen apart, not due to disagreements about content or terms, but because one party felt disrespected, unheard, bullied, or ignored. While it may be tempting to think that negotiations are solely about rational positions and tactics, you will be a more successful negotiator if you account for the human emotions and reactions that may be in play on both sides of the table.

Respond to their Position

Seek to demonstrate value for your counterpart

The next step is to try to address the concerns raised by the other side. For example, in the case of the troubled business owner, you or your client might say, “Would it be helpful if we walk you through the plans to integrate the workers from site #1 into the other locations?” After you respond, it can be helpful to add a point that you know your counterpart will value. For example, you might add, “Would you like to hear our plan for sites #2 and #3 over the next three years?”

Restate the Offer

Your counterpart should receive your intended main message

As you plan your negotiation strategy, you must determine your main objective. If you cannot state your negotiation objective in one sentence, it will be difficult for you to be clear and consistent during negotiations, which can impact your likelihood of success. Be sure to have your desired outcome firmly planted in your own mind. Use it as your main message and connect it to your response to the heated opposition: “Selling the business to us means it will continue to be at the heart of our community.”

As you become skilled in this technique, you will learn to rephrase your message in several different ways. However, the content will always be the same. In this example, you and your client want the business owner to do one specific thing—sell the business to you.


When you are prepared to meet heated or emotional responses, you will look forward to them. They are opportunities to come to a better, more sustainable agreement. When you know how to handle heated or emotional situations, you will not be intimidated or caught off-guard. Remember the four steps:

  • Listen to the entire response to find out the cause of emotion. Ask for clarification, if needed.
  • Rephrase their statement in a neutral manner.
  • Respond to their position and consider how you can provide value that appeals to them.
  • Revise and restate your offer, taking into account their concerns.

Continue to practice and use these techniques. You will be amazed at how powerfully they work to achieve beneficial outcomes for yourself, your client, and the opposing side.

Katrina Murphy and Ching Valdezco are Global Learning Consultants at Exec-Comm LLC. Katrina is an experienced litigator who now focuses on professional development. Ching heads Exec-Comm’s global facilitator team and was named one of Silicon Valley’s Top 100 Women of Influence.

Katrina Murphy and Ching Valdezco are speakers at the upcoming PLI program: Negotiation Skills Essentials 2021.

Published in PLI Chronicle — See the article

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