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Emotional Hangovers

by Phyllis Pollack

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

       The other day, I came upon an article in the June 2005 Harvard Negotiation Newsletter (Vol. 8, No. 6) entitled “Negotiating Under the Influence” by Jennifer S. Lerner. The thesis of the article is that our emotional state does, indeed, directly effect our decisions, often for the worse. I found this interesting because while this thesis makes sense to me, it contradicts another study that was the subject of an earlier blog entitled “Anger Leads To Better Decisions.” In that study, the researchers (Wesley Moons and Diane Mackie) found that being angry helped people make more rational and analytical decisions.

      So. . . back to Ms. Lerner’s article. In it, she describes how she and fellow researchers Roxana Gonzalez, Don Moore and Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon University conducted experiments in which the participants had a financial incentive to do well. In one study, some of the participants were induced to feel anger at the party that they would later be negotiating with while a second group of participants were induced to feel anger towards a non-participant in the later negotiations. Finally, a third group of the participants were given tasks designed to induce a neutral emotional state.

      As you may guess, the participants who were induced to be angry at their opponent “. . . had trouble separating their anger about the opponent’s past unfairness from the new negotiation.” (Id.) These angry negotiators were significantly less adept at perceiving their own interests than the “neutral” negotiators or third group of participants who were emotionally neutral. More interestingly, the anger created a “hangover for negotiators who were angry about an unrelated event.” That is, those participants (i.e. the second group) who were angry at an unrelated party or event “took their anger out” on their opponent even though she had nothing to do with it. These participants “. . . still made significant more errors in perceiving their own interests. . .”  than did the “neutral” negotiators. (Id.)

      Another study showed that the angry negotiators made errors that cost them money. That is, anger caused errors that directly translated into a loss of dollars. This cause and effect occurred without the awareness of the participants. In fact, “. . . despite earning less money, the [angry] negotiators were happier with their own performance than were [the neutral] negotiators.” They were simply not aware that their anger (much less how much their anger) had effected their judgment and choices.

      So. . . what does this all mean? It means that if you arrive at a mediation having just sat in bottleneck traffic for an hour or just having been rear-ended or worried about some other event, this anger or worry will affect your ability to negotiate. As Ms. Lerner puts it, you will  truly suffer from an “emotional hangover.”

      But, there are ways to prevent this “emotional hangover” from impairing your judgment and thus not getting the best results at mediation. First, be accountable for your decisions. Use the mediator or the neutral and impartial third party to discuss and justify your decision making process. Having to account for (and thus explain) the accuracy of your judgments and decision making process will help you see which decisions stem from anger.

       Second, recognize and defuse the “hangover emotions.” Identify your own emotional triggers. Become aware that you are, indeed, angry, of what got you angry and talk about it. Start the mediation with small talk about how bad the traffic was or that you were just rear-ended, et cetera in order to vent and diffuse your anger. Engaging  in such “small talk” for a few moments will allow you to calm down. If you sense the other side is suffering from an emotional hangover, ask open-ended questions to draw out her tale of woe, thereby minimizing her emotional hangover, as well.

      Last, but not least, take a break, if need be. If you suspect that you and/or others in the mediation are suffering from an emotional hangover, suggest a lunch break or just a short break for some “fresh air.”

      As Ms. Lerner concluded:

      “It’s important to recognize that emotions such as anger motivate us to take immediate action. Without attempting to suppress the emotion itself, resist the urge to act on impulse.  . . .Negotiators who recognize the influence of incidental emotion on themselves and others have already gone a long way toward improving their outcomes.” (Id.)

 Whether Ms. Lerner is correct in her thesis that anger leads to bad decisions or whether researchers Wesley Moons and Diane Mackie (discussed in my earlier blog) are correct in their thesis that anger leads to better decisions, I do not know. Perhaps, the answer is different with each of us. But it is noteworthy to find two studies reaching contrary conclusions on the same subject.

      . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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