Bargaining With Feeling
“You do the dishes tonight, I already did them yesterday.”—“No, you do them because I cooked dinner tonight and yesterday.”—“But I didn’t ask you to cook, we could have gotten takeout. Also, I need to do some work tonight, so I don’t have time for the dishes.”—“I cooked because it is cheaper. Didn’t we agree to spend less money so that we can buy that new couch that YOU want? The least you can do is do the dishes.”
Most of us are familiar with discussions like this, in which we have different preferences than our partner, boss, parents, neighbor, or the car dealer, and we want (or need) to reach an agreement. As we probably all know from experience, such discussions—negotiations—sometimes go smoothly and lead to an agreement that is acceptable for everyone. At other times, however, they result in heated and emotional arguments that leave one or both parties unhappy and dissatisfied.
One aspect that can affect whether a negotiation will be cooperative and lead to an outcome that considers both parties’ interests is the negotiator’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive what they and others are feeling, and to manage or regulate their own and others’ feelings. As previous studies have shown, negotiators with a higher level of emotional intelligence reach agreements that better integrate both parties’ preferences and are perceived as more cooperative by their negotiation partners.
That made me ask, is it possible to teach people how to be more emotionally intelligent and reach more cooperative outcomes in negotiations? I focused on one of the fundamental components of emotional intelligence, namely the ability to accurately read others’ emotions from nonverbal cues in the face, voice, and body. This skill is known to be beneficial in many ways for relationships, so my assumption was that training people to improve their emotion recognition ability would foster cooperativeness in negotiations.
My test subjects were 83 pairs of previously unacquainted undergraduate students. About half of the pairs completed a 45-minute computer-based emotion recognition training in which they learned about the cues that signal 14 different emotions such as pride, relief, sadness, or anger, and practiced recognizing them in short video clips. The other pairs were asked to complete a control training that taught them how to distinguish 14 types of clouds such as cumulus, stratus, and cirrus.
Next, each pair engaged in a negotiation task in which one participant had the role of a human resources manager and the other participant had the role of an employee asking for a job transfer. Participants had 30 minutes to agree on a new job contract including salary, vacation days, starting date, and other details. After the negotiation, participants rated their own and their partner’s competitiveness, and, importantly, I could calculate how well each person achieved their own goals (in points) because the negotiation task was designed to yield such scores.
Being trained to identify emotions better had an impact: those trained pairs had more of a balance in their points than the pairs trained to recognize clouds, meaning their economic outcome was more egalitarian or cooperative. The emotion-trained group also rated their own and their partner’s behavior as less competitive. In addition, new observers who were asked to watch the videotapes of the interactions rated the pairs who were trained in emotion recognition group as behaving less negatively and as being less forceful in negotiation style.
Thus, it is indeed possible to train one important component of emotional intelligence—emotion recognition ability—in a way that affects actual behaviors and outcomes in a negotiation.
This finding is not only relevant for professional negotiators in business or politics. Given how frequently we negotiate in our everyday lives—from mundane (who does the dishes) to major topics (how much to pay for a house)—focusing on what others are feeling and how to manage these feelings is a good idea anytime we interact with someone we aim to maintain a positive relationship with.
Do you want to see for yourself if emotion recognition training works? Many (free) programs are waiting to be discovered by you through your smartphone’s app store.
For Further Reading
Schlegel, K. (2021). The effects of emotion recognition training on interpersonal effectiveness. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, online first publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2021.1883021
Schlegel, K., Mehu, M., van Peer, J. M., & Scherer, K. R. (2018). Sense and sensibility: The role of cognitive and emotional intelligence in negotiation. Journal of Research in Personality, 74, 6-15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2017.12.003
Sharma, S., Bottom, W. P., & Elfenbein, H. A. (2013). On the role of personality, cognitive ability, and emotional intelligence in predicting negotiation outcomes: A meta-analysis. Organizational Psychology Review, 3(4), 293–336.