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Negotiation Mistake 3: Ignoring Emotions (The Elephant In The Room)

by Nancy Hudgins
February 2011

From the blog of Nancy Hudgins

Nancy  Hudgins

(This is the third in a series of 7 Mistakes Really Good Negotiators Make.)

If you think I’m talking about clients’ emotions you’d be half right. Let’s start with you.

Emotions are often sparked in lawyers who are negotiating for their clients. How many times have you been frustrated when the other side hasn’t moved as much as you expected, especially when you just made an impressive move? How many times have you angrily reacted when it becomes apparent that the other side has not evaluated the case as realistically as you have? How many times have you entertained the irritating/anxious thought that a case you really wanted to settle is not going to settle?

Neuroscientists tell us that when we feel threatened, our lower reptilian brain (the amygdala) reacts first: fight, flight or flee. It takes some time for this emotional flooding to subside before we are able to access the higher, more rational, parts of our brain.

We can train ourselves to lessen the impact of emotions in mediations. Here are some skills to combat emotional reactivity in negotiation:

1. Preparation. Strong negative emotions come up in almost every mediation. Prepare for them by reminding yourself ahead of time that you are likely to experience them and have strategies in mind to deal with them.

2. Pay attention during the mediation. The sooner you notice negative emotions arising, the less sway they may have.

3. Name them. Oh, I’m beginning to feel frustrated because the negotiation is not going the way I had anticipated….

4. Take a couple of deep breaths—give the emotion time to dissipate.

5. Try to be a fly on the wall, looking at the tableau, as opposed to being in the thick of it.

6. Take a break if you need it. Get up and walk around. Even around the block, if necessary.

Now you’re ready to begin anew, able to access the brilliant strategies that make you the successful negotiator that you are.

Use these strategies to help your clients, too. Prepare them for the emotional roller coaster. Pay attention to their emotional states during the mediation. Help them work through them rather than ignoring them. They’ll be better decision makers, too.


Nancy Hudgins, a San Francisco mediator and lawyer, began specializing in civil litigation in the 1970's. She has represented both plaintiffs and defendants, chiefly in personal injury, medical malpractice, elder abuse and product liability lawsuits, but also in a wide variety of complex litigation, including civil rights, fraud and class actions. She has settled and mediated thousands of cases. In addition to civil litigation mediation, she also co-mediates divorces with John Duda, a marriage and family therapist.

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