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Tough negotiations are incredibly stressful. It is therefore very important to learn to recognise and control your own stress level – otherwise the other side may take advantage of you.

The influence of stress in a negotiation is of huge importance. When negotiating on the basis of emotions such as fear, resentment or anger, you often make decisions that you will regret later. Two elements always come into play in a negotiation: rationality and emotionality. The rational element forms the basis of the argumentation; the emotional element in a difficult negotiation is caused by stress and anxiety and has many faces.

The effect of stress on your effectiveness

Difficult negotiations are stressful. A negotiation that you are finding difficult leads to increased stress. But does this increased stress have a positive or negative impact on the negotiation? Stress causes palpitations, rush, concentration problems, but stress also increases performance as well as the will to fight and to win. Therefore, stress has both positive and negative aspects.

As stress increases, so does your capacity to perform. If you enter a negotiation with very little tension, you will not be able to use your full potential. Only with increasing stress levels will you reach full performance.  However, avoid exceeding that level. The graph below shows that with a continued increase in stress levels, your effectiveness will decrease sharply after you have reached the peak. 


Recognize stress and use it to your advantage

A skilled negotiator may put you in a stressful situation to test your reaction and to unsettle you, so that you are no longer master of the situation and make rash statement or rush into action. To avoid getting caught in this trap, you should pay attention to the following points:

1. Recognize stress

A difficult negotiation is accompanied by increased stress levels because your system has recognized “danger”. But this is also an advantage, because your system is telling you that you are facing risk and that your full commitment is required. How do you realize that you are under stress? Everybody reacts differently to stress in a negotiation. Reactions on the cognitive level could be lack of concentration, or nervousness, and on the emotional level it could be fear or anger. Yur negotiating partners do not notice this because your actual thoughts and feelings remain hidden, but they are likely to react to your body language. Vegetative hormonal reactions such as sweating or a red face clearly show that you are under stress. Muscular reactions such as shaky knees and muscle twitching may also be noticeable. Pay attention to these signs of stress when negotiating. Observe your own reactions to stress and acknowledge the moments in the negotiation when your stress rises or falls. You will only be able to deal constructively with stress if you are aware of your reaction to it.

2. Use stress

Stress is an excellent way for you to achieve the highest level of performance, and you should be grateful because your mind has identified this negotiation as a risk, which means you will enter negotiations with full commitment. This commitment is beneficial up to a certain moment and then turns into a serious handicap, however. What should you do if you feel that you have reached this threshold?

Go to the stands

While playing on the football field, you see your opponents at eye level. You are running and sweating, you get fouled and foul your opponent. Whenever your opponent makes you fall, you return the favor. If the referee notices it, you will get a warning at some point. You notice when the ball is passed to you, but you are unlikely to have an overview of the entire game from this position. You only notice what is really going on when you leave the field and go to the stands.

Stress management techniques such as autogenic training or Jacobson’s muscle relaxation technique will usually be of no help in the stressful phase of a negotiation. However, getting some exercise certainly will, so ask for a short break. Suggest retiring for a few minutes to hold a discussion. Go and get refreshments or additional work documents. When in a stressful situation, the most important thing is to move your body.

Escape the instinct trap

If you are dealing with a very unfair negotiator, then you might be lured into a situation known as the instinct trap. Remember the Stone Age man who is facing a saber-toothed tiger and has two options: to attack or to flee. He will not consider for long which is better for him but respond immediately – instinctively. This action is not guided by rational considerations. If your negotiating partner is aware of these processes, they will turn into a “saber-toothed tiger” and lead you into a situation where there is no escape for you. Either you flee the situation or you attack.

Don’t respond if you are attacked

By attacking, your negotiating partner forces you to react based on your instincts. You turn into a “reaction robot”. Every attack triggers the entire stress response. If you do not interrupt the process, your stress levels will continue to increase with each attack until you reach that threshold where you are no longer able to act rationally. Most likely, you will launch your counterattack or challenge the other side and destroy the entire negotiation by offending, insulting, breaking off negotiations. Or – worst of all – you will make a decision borne out of a reaction to the attack, but not consistent with the target of your negotiation.

Escape is the second instinctive reaction to a stressful situation. Perhaps you decide to escape by signing a contract, just to get out of the situation. Whenever you flee, you signal to the other side that their method worked well. They will feel empowered and approach future negotiations in the same way, exerting pressure to force you into a stressful situations time and again. Maybe you have already experienced this cycle - it is incredibly difficult to get out of this. Once again, the only option is going to the stands!

Do not focus on the actions of your negotiating partner, but on your own reaction

Going to the stands is the decisive step to interrupt the stress cycle. In psychology, the stands are called meta-level. At the meta level, you are able to look at the situation calmly from above. Act mentally as an independent commentator and rate the situation “from above”. Analyze your previous actions and consider carefully at what point the negotiation turned negative or positive for you. It is especially important to discover why the negotiation developed negatively for you. Why did your negotiating partner get the upper hand just at that point? When you go to the stands, you have the opportunity to plan your next step in the negotiation: just think about how you can catch your negotiating partner off guard.

Pass on the problem

If you tend to react when your counterpart puts you under pressure, the negotiation will become a problem for you. Reading and manipulating you becomes very easy when you are in reaction mode. You must break this cycle and catch your counterpart off guard to become the active lead in the negotiation. Do this by passing on the problem over to your interlocutor to solve.