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Keep Calm and Negotiate

Have you ever faced someone who is extremely heated, demonstrating an outsized reaction to an insignificant situation? We all have, and these moments are far from enjoyable. They’re adversarial, tense, and even threatening.

I’ve experienced this with a family member—my mom, to be specific. She’s struggling with dementia and isn’t herself, which often means she says and does things she normally wouldn’t. I find it difficult not to react negatively, and I sometimes do. When that happens, the only real outcome is stress for both of us. 

On my last visit, I decided to change my approach. It was difficult, but I chose to respond to her insults with patience, agreeableness, and even humor. When I didn’t become angry, offended, or flustered, she calmed down far more quickly than usual. The atmosphere of tension in the room changed. Rather than increasing her agitation, my lack of a reaction soothed her. What could have been a confrontational and argumentative situation was diffused. I maintained control rather than allowing the difficult emotions of dealing with a loved one with dementia to rule my time with her.

Most of the time, when insults are hurled and voices raised, the other person wants to elicit a reaction from you. For reasons probably unrelated to what’s actually happening, they want to control your response, so they treat you in a way that would usually trigger a specific reaction. They would expect that when they yell, you will yell; when they name-call, you will name-call; when they escalate a situation, you will follow suit.

When you answer negativity with negativity, the hostility escalates. It’s natural to want to fight fire with fire, but toning down your response, almost to the point of ambivalence, can preserve your sanity and demonstrate your emotional intelligence.

Recently, one of my friends experienced an incident with her neighbor. A package was left on her stoop, and thinking it was for her, she opened it. When she realized it was mistakenly delivered to her and actually belonged to her neighbor, she returned the package. The neighbor chose to retaliate this perceived slight in a big way—by calling 911. 

Fortunately, my friend didn’t allow this unnecessary use of law enforcement to bother her. In fact, her reasonable reaction seemed to get under the neighbor’s skin more than the package incident itself. When you allow the actions of others to dictate how you respond to a situation, you lose your power. In this case, the neighbor thought she was putting on a show of strength by calling the police. Instead, her plan backfired. Her overly reaction came off rather badly, and she was scolded by the police for wasting resources. 

Although there was no preplanned intention, how my friend handled the situation proved she was a reasonable person and even generated support from other neighbors.

Negotiation is no different. There’s a misconception that successful negotiators are the loudest, most adversarial people in the room—the classic bull in the china shop. I’ve seen over and over that this simply isn’t the case. The most effective negotiators keep their composure, listen to others, are curious, and aren’t reactionary at the bargaining table. They end up with the real power in the room because they have the self-control to curate their response, regardless of what the other side may be doing.

Watching this play out in real-time can be a little bit entertaining. Normally, the loudest person comes in with the highest expectations of the outcome. When you, who by outward appearances isn’t as strong a negotiator, end up with the most power, a brash bargainer can feel perplexed, to say the least. You can use their confusion to your advantage. While they’re trying to figure out why their usual tricks aren’t working on you, you can take action to reach the goals you set for the negotiation.

Some people enjoy seeing how far they can push you, especially if they feel powerless in their day-to-day lives. That doesn’t mean you have to move. Staying calm under pressure, especially in the midst of conflict, requires composure and patience but isn’t impossible. You can start practicing controlling your emotions today. Don’t let the loudest person in the room steal your power. Instead, protect yourself by controlling your emotions rather than reacting without thought.


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