Read any scholarly article or book on the concept of emotional competence or emotional intelligence and you will come across the concept of “display rules”. These are the beliefs about which expressions of emotions are socially desirable or appropriate. As children we learn to alter our external expression of our feelings to confirm to these display rules. Generally, in Western societies, the expression of negative emotions, such as anger and sadness is mitigated by these display rules, the expression of positive emotions less so.

In our 2014 global negotiation survey we asked respondents if they would express a negative feeling, i.e. “I’m disappointed in your reaction.” This is a behaviour we call Giving Feelings, which we define as: “a behaviour that reveals information about the internal thoughts and feelings of the negotiator.” 80% of our respondents would not use this behaviour.  Yet one of the more surprising findings from Huthwaite’s original observational research was the fact that skilled negotiators expressed their feelings more than the average negotiators. This is even more surprising given that we might expect negotiators more than anyone to behave like poker players.

In fact both average and skilled negotiators exhibited more feelings than we have seen in other contexts; in our observation of complaint handling for example expressing feelings only constituted 3.5% of adviser behaviour and that included demonstrating understanding of the customer’s feelings as well as their own.

‘Giving Feelings’ to avoid objections

Whilst our definition of Giving Feelings did cover expressions of other internal information, such as thoughts and opinions, the expression of feelings was clearly important for a successful negotiation outcome. In Huthwaite we attribute the importance of this behaviour to negotiators using it to avoid disagreement or clashing over factual ideas and proposals put forward. In a negotiation you and I may well disagree over a price point and you may feel inclined to tell me that my price suggestion is unacceptable and vice versa. But if you tell me how you feel about my price suggestion then it is far harder for me to disagree with that, because how we feel is something we can own for ourselves, and it is more difficult for the other side to raise objections.

Successful negotiation – factors that can have an effect on ‘Giving Feelings’

One of the more pervasive gender stereotypes is that women are more emotional than men. More specifically women are seen as more likely to express happiness, sadness and fear than men, but men are more likely to express anger. In the Huthwaite 2014 global negotiation survey we did not find a significant difference due to gender.  Age did have an impact; the older you are the more likely you are to use the Giving Feelings behaviour. Perhaps with age and maturity we discover that we can overcome the restrictions of childhood and learn that we can express feelings in a socially acceptable way. However it is also those in a position of power (namely CEOs and Managers) who are most likely to express their feelings and see it as ok to do so. The two job roles that are least likely to express feelings are Customer Service and Finance/Legal, which given the observational data referenced above is not surprising. It may also reflect their working environment, certainly for Customer Service, who were the least inclined of all to express feelings. So much of their training is about how to control their own emotional responses, even when customers are behaving emotionally.

Culturally we also saw differences. Given that we British have the reputation for having a stiff upper lip and being more emotionally repressed than most you might expect the British Isles to be at the bottom when it came to expressing feelings. But that was not the case. In fact it was the Mediterranean countries (represented here primarily by Italy, Greece and Spain) who showed the most reluctance to use feelings and also were more likely to feel that it was inappropriate to do so. Overall North Americans were the most comfortable with expressing feelings. So perhaps our inclination to express how we feel is related in some way to how comfortable and confident we feel.

Giving Feelings can be both positive and negative; for most of us we may feel more comfortable expressing the positive aspects, even though we may not do so as often as we might. Expressing negative feelings may be a way of discharging in an effective way any undercurrents of tension that may be damaging the interaction we are having, as long as we remember to own them for ourselves and not project them or pass the blame for them onto the other side.