Actually, Do Let Them See You Sweat: The Science Behind Why Sweating Before Negotiating Is Good

If you’re confident before you negotiate, a little physical exertion can make you more effective. But if you’re nervous, you might want to try this.

Actually, Do Let Them See You Sweat: The Science Behind Why Sweating Before Negotiating Is Good
[Image: Flickr user Evan Blaser]

“If you’re sweating and your heart rate is up, it’s seen as a sign something is going wrong, that you’re too nervous, off balance, flustered,” M.I.T. associate professor Jared Curhan tells the New York Times. “Whereas we’re showing that something could be very right.”


The “very right” is this: As published in the journal Psychological Science, Curhan and his co-authors found that physical activity can make you better in negotiations, but only if you feel confident beforehand. If you’re anxious, the activity will only make matters worse–which reveals something interesting about the way we relate to our phsyical and emotional states.

But before we get there, let’s look at the methodology. The researchers conducted two experiments: In the first, two groups haggled over the purchase of a car while walking on a treadmill–one group walked at a brisk enough pace to raise heart rates to 117 beats per minute, the second walked more casually until their hearts hit 88 beats a minute. In the second experiment, subjects negotiated job terms while on a cell phone and either walking or sitting in a chair.

As the Times notes, the people who hated the negotiation process did even worse after they got all physically worked up. But the more confident people only got more confident:

What was more surprising was that those who looked forward to negotiation displayed the opposite results: In the job-negotiation experiment, they performed better and felt better about their performances when they were walking. And in the treadmill experiment, the confident negotiators felt that they performed better when their heart rates were elevated–more so than equally confident people who walked at a modest pace.

Let’s tease those results apart, for they help us understand how to work with these unruly internal phenomena we call emotions. As Matt Richtel, the Times reporter, notes, the research has settled upon a two-pronged approach to defining emotions: There’s the physical response, and then there’s the way you interpret it.

In other words, Richtel says, the things that one person might define as anxiety–a quickly beating heart, butterflies in the stomach, and the like–another would take to be excitement. And as Harvard Business School researcher Alison Wood Brooks has found, people do better in diverse things like public speaking, math, and singing if they re-interpret their physical sensations as excitement instead of anxiety.

The takeaway: rather than telling yourself that you’re anxious, tell yourself you’re excited. Add that to our inventory of techniques for unraveling imposter syndrome and other forms of at-work emotional agility.

Hat tip: The New York Times

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.