How Angry Negotiators Can Do You a Favour

When trying to reach a win-win deal, angry talk can be more productive than happy talk. But don’t forget to play nice (and get your fair share too)
Cartoon man angrily yelling into phone

The essentials

  • In an interest-based, or win-win negotiation, anger expressed by one side of the table can be a more productive emotion than happiness. It signals an urgency to the other party to seek out more information to help create value, and can thus lead to a better deal for both sides.
  • But the angry negotiating partner still benefits more than the calm partner.
  • Negotiators who use anger or disappointment as emotional gameplay risk undermining their interests if their emotions are perceived as insincere.
  • Faced with an angry counterpart, negotiators are advised to calmly ask diagnostic questions to reveal potential opportunities to create value.

By Alan Morantz

There is a quote that Laura Rees likes to share with students in her negotiation class at Smith School of Business. It’s by Aristotle: “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Rees, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour, takes a clinical view of emotions such as anger. Emotions are signals “of what the other person is thinking and might do,” she says. In the throes of a tough negotiation, anger is a strong signal, one that should be heeded. In fact, it might just be what the two sides need. In a recent study, Rees found that when trying to reach a win-win deal, angry talk is more productive than happy talk.

Grrr… Are you feeling angry?

For researchers studying negotiation dynamics, anger is like catnip. It is the most studied emotion, so we know a lot about it. We know, for example, that anger can be effective at forcing the other side to offer concessions. But in some circumstances—when anger comes across as fake or is overly intense—it can lead to an impasse.

Rees suspected that anger could actually benefit both sides in an interest-based negotiation­—the sharing of information about individual priorities in an effort to reach mutually beneficial agreements. An angry person, Rees figured, should deliver a lot more actionable information than a happy person. “Anger clearly signals that something is wrong and you need to do something about it,” she says.

Negotiators facing an angry negotiating partner should be motivated to seek out diagnostic information about their counterpart’s preferences and priorities. “If someone responds to you in anger, instead of arguing back and getting entrenched in your seemingly opposing postions, it can be helpful to pause and ask ‘why?’ ” Discovering more information about the other party’s underlying motivations should let you reach an agreement that works for both sides.  

Take, for instance, an employee who is angry that a request for an increase in salary has been denied. The supervisor has rejected the request due to departmental budget constraints. But if the supervisor were to look beyond the money and inquire about motivations behind the request, important information about the employee’s situation might be revealed. Perhaps the employee is worried about paying for a child’s school tuition. Or the scope of the employee’s work has expanded beyond what’s in the job description. 

“Exploring interests help uncover value-creation opportunities and win-win situations that focusing purely on positions cannot,” Rees explains. The solution to the employee’s request for more money, for example, could be a title promotion or a tuition support plan available through the organization. The departmental budget remains intact and the employee feels appreciated and supported. 

In negotiations, happiness is a great way to signal that you’re trustworthy and co-operative. In contrast to anger, however, happiness tends not to motivate the other party to seek a solution to a problem and uncover value-creating opportunities. Rees says that in interest-based negotiations, creating value largely relies on differences in parties’ priorities rather than commonalities.  

Happy talk can also damage a negotiator’s credibility. “Instead of carefully deliberating,” says Rees, “observers of happy negotiating partners may simply be less likely to concede, even if doing so on some issues may create value. They are more likely to try to take advantage of the happy partner.”

The joy of disappointment

Rees worked with Shu-Cheng Steve Chi (National Taiwan University), Ray Friedman (Vanderbilt University), and Huei-Lin Shih (Industrial Technology Research Institute) to learn more. In a series of five studies incorporating recall-based negotiation scenarios, they compared how angry versus happy negotiating partners are likely to influence the other side’s tendency to seek new information about their counterpart’s interests, and how this process relates to subsequent agreements.

Their studies confirmed that negotiators facing an angry versus a happy counterpart seek out more information and uncover new value of benefit to both sides. It isn’t about how much the angry negotiator cares about the outcome of the negotiation; what’s important is the signal that something is wrong—indicating that there is more information that must surface.

But while the negotiated pie is larger, the slices are still not split evenly. Angry negotiating partners benefit proportionately more. Calm partners may do a great job of pulling out insights for mutual benefit, but they can fail to fully address their own interests. Perhaps they’re less confident in their position or just anxious to get the angry negotiator off their back. 

This does raise a somewhat uncomfortable question: Given that anger is an effective ploy, should it be a go-to strategy for negotiators?

Rees says there are risks. Anger can backfire if seen as manipulative or fake. In that case, it can quickly spiral out of control and put an end to discussions. 

Another problem: “Pretending to be angry can actually make you angry, and that can stop you from thinking about your own interests,” says Rees. “You’re harming yourself when you’re not thinking clearly.” Indeed, German researchers recently found that angry people tend to make lower first offers and irrationally reject perfectly good deals. 

If you’re really into emotional gameplay during negotiations, try displaying disappointment rather than anger. It still sends a signal that all is not well and is less likely to spark reciprocal anger. Disappointment might even elicit some guilt on the other side of the table. Of course, it can just as likely come off looking weak, Rees says. “It can backfire if the person isn't empathetic or doesn’t care as much about you.”

If you’re on the receiving end of these emotions during a negotiation, Rees suggests asking diagnostic questions that reveal potential trade-offs and positional soft spots.

“I teach this to my students in negotiation,” she says. “If someone says they’re not doing business with you, the best answer is, ‘Tell me more.’ The more you redirect that emotional signal into a cognitive pathway, the more value you can create. Just be careful to claim your fair share of it.”

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