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Could Showing Sadness Help You Get What You Want In A Negotiation?

New research reveals that showing feelings of sadness in the right social context could lead to concessions.

Could Showing Sadness Help You Get What You Want In A Negotiation?
[Photo: LoloStock via Shutterstock]

Crying at work may feel like a major office faux pas, but showing emotion at certain times could work to your advantage.

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A recent study titled “Weep and Get More: When and Why Sadness Expression is Effective in Negotiations” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that there may be times when expressing sadness can give you leverage in negotiations.

“The study tests whether such an assumption is backed by science, and demonstrates when sadness would lead to concessions versus when it doesn’t, and whether empathy is what drives this effect when it occurs,” explains one of the study’s authors, Shirli Kopelman, professor at University of Michigan Ross School of Business and author of Negotiating Genuinely: Being Yourself in Business. She says that the primary driver for a negotiation outcome is the social context in which the feelings of sadness take place. “Positive and negative emotions are important resources in negotiations.”

“This Almost Brings Tears To My Eyes”

The study used a series of face-to-face experiments with 122 to 232 male and female management graduate students at a French university who were enrolled in a business negotiations course. They role-played a two-party negotiation exercise in a double-blind procedure related to a new business venture between two firms that were considering a venture to develop, manufacture, and market a new drug.

The students were advised that their goal was to maximize their own points. One student was assigned to be the “expresser” and was given a set of negotiation recommendations that showed feelings of sadness, such as looking down and gloomy and using words that indicated sadness (e.g., “This almost brings tears to my eyes,” or “I feel miserable.”) The other student was assigned to be neutral and was given a set of recommendations about how to control their emotions by staying calm, keeping a poker face, and keeping their voice steady. Other factors were also brought into play, such as giving participants information related to their counterpart’s power and the nature of the participants’ relationship to each other.

Having Little Power Helps

“We find, for example, that sadness influenced concessions when the person expressing genuine sadness was perceived to have low power,” the authors say, meaning that if you are identified as powerless and in need of something, rather than being seen as powerful and not so dependent, the neutral negotiator will more than likely feel a sense of social responsibility to make concessions in your favor.

Anticipated Future Interaction

Two additional examples of social contexts when expressing genuine sadness influenced a concession in favor of the expresser were identified as: When the participants anticipated a future interaction, or when there could be a communal outcome versus exchange-based (i.e., an outcome where benefits are received through a comparable benefit returned), even when no future interaction was anticipated.

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Remember, however, the word “genuine” is key. As explained in the study under a section titled “Ethical Implications,” sadness can obviously be “strategically feigned or exaggerated in a calculated attempt to influence others.” Hence, “ethical caution must be strongly exercised in generalizing the results.”

What’s Appropriate?

“It’s important to consider the broader context and whether expressing an emotion you feel would be considered appropriate,” Kopelman adds. “For example, expressing sadness may or may not be appropriate during a job interview. If culturally and socially appropriate in a specific negotiation, it is then important to understand how expressing an emotion may influence the conversation.”

She emphasizes the importance of mindfully aligning emotions with goals. “If expressing sadness would be productive in the context of a particular conversation you may mindfully connect with your sadness to appropriately express your feelings,” she says. “However, if you believe it would hinder the conversation you could mindfully connect with another emotion you feel, for example excitement about a potential opportunity, to re-direct the conversation.”

In her book Negotiating Genuinely Kopelman explains that we tend to assume that the traits of a strong and strategic negotiator entails having a calculated self-interest that typically includes a dose of inauthenticity, one where we do not display our true vulnerabilities—a negotiation strategy where we basically believe that changing hats when navigating different roles will get us what we want. Instead, perhaps it’s better to integrate the many hats we wear (businessperson, friend, spouse, volunteer), or as Kopelman writes, “be at once real and strategic” with your head wearing one “genuine hat.”