Label Emotions and Become a Fierce Negotiator

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Label Emotions: This post focuses on an Advance Negotiation Skill: Labeling. Labeling sounds simple and boring, but it is neither. Don’t overlook its power.  

Negotiation is a useful skill to develop. Few physicians work on it. Those who do notice benefits in their personal and professional lives.

Start with the basics. Then read this post to learn a more advanced skill.


Losing With Logic

I used my nerd skills to succeed in many areas of life. I played chess, studied chemistry, programmed computers, and aced symbolic logic in college. 

But, I realized that cold calculations do not obtain the best deals in life. Our emotional intelligence is more important.

Renee Descartes was brilliant, but he over-emphasized and underappreciated our emotional experience. He worked hard to separate mind and body. This separation promoted science but created a false divide. 

Perception, empathy, and emotion are the keys to negotiation mastery. The key is not logical reasoning.

I’m not here to bash the Harvard Negotiation Project by any means. Its book “Getting to Yes” is a foundational work for Basic Negotiation. Their focus on win-win deals revolutionized effective negotiations. However, to get beyond the basics, you must build your “soft skills. “

Being like Spock (on Star Trek) will limit your success. Ignore people’s feelings at your peril.


Fierce Use of Soft Skills

Chris Voss taught me these skills. Anyone interested in improving interpersonal relationships or business success should study his book

Chris Voss started as a street cop. He admired the officers who could deescalate a high-stakes conflict. He noticed the most successful officers didn’t use force and aggression. Instead, they were soft-spoken savvy listeners. Over time he improved his skills of tactical empathy. 

You can obtain mastery too. The key is to use soft skills without becoming soft. Have a lot of tools in your tool kit and know when to use them.

The higher the stakes of the negotiation, the more emotions run the show. Managing the emotional terrain requires soft skills. So practice your softer skills to stay sharp.

Chris Voss started by volunteering on a suicide hotline. He built his skills over time to become the FBI’s lead hostage negotiator.

Later he learned at Harvard, taught at two business schools, and now runs a consulting company.

His book, Never Split the Difference, reads more like a novel than a business book. He credits his co-author, Tahl Raz, for making the writing enjoyable. 


Emotions Trump Logic

Emotional responses drive human behavior.

We decide, act, and then rationalize.

Damaging the brain’s emotional processing areas renders one unable to make decisions. First, we emote. Then we explain.

To connect and influence, we need to understand and address emotions.

You can improve using a three-step process.


STEP ONE: Identify Emotions

We have a wide range of emotions. Recent research suggests there are six or seven different emotions:

Happy, Sad, Surprise, Anger, Contempt, Disgust, Fear

Research shows people express emotions in their faces. Learning to read faces is a great way to read the emotions of others. Yet, many of us struggle to understand and identify them. The important first step is to learn the patterns of emotional expression.

With training, you can improve your awareness of facial expressions. Using tools from Dr. Paul Ekman, law enforcement officers have honed these skills. For them, it is a matter of life and death. 

Instead of listening, we often chatter. We think. We don’t observe while listening. In the process, we lose critical input.

We can improve this skill. I know I did.

In my case, I still have a long way to go. But I’m getting better, and you can too.

Dealing with only logic and ignoring emotion is like boxing one-handed. Don’t do that.

Listen/look. Recognize emotion. Learn from Dr. Eckman how to improve this skill. 

Also, try to set yourself up for success. Make it easier on yourself. Original awareness is critical. You cannot process what you don’t perceive. 

Make sure you can hear the words. Ask them to speak up. Turn down ambient noise or step away. Go to an area with adequate lighting. Turn your chair to face them.

I learned another tip to improve my listening ability. It’s from memory expert Anthony Metivier. To listen better, repeat the words you hear. Speak as if you are the one speaking. Move your tongue, so the tip is moving around the middle of your mouth. I know this sounds bizarre. But I found it focuses my attention. It prevents my mind from wandering to internal chatter. Otherwise, I think about what I will say, not what they are saying.

If you were in their shoes, what would you think? What would you feel?

Don’t label people but always label their emotions.

Learn the common emotional facial patterns.

STEP TWO: Label Emotions

Confirm your perception is right by labeling the emotion you see.

“It looks like you …”

“It sounds like you …”

“It feels like you are …”

“It seems like you …”

“It seems like you are angry.”

“It seems like you fear losing your job.”

“It seems like you feel we don’t care about you.”

“It seems so unfair.”

“It seems that you are passionate about teaching.”

Saying this decreases their limbic (amygdala activity) emotional activity. 

This simple act of affect labeling stops them. They need to agree, disagree, or clarify. 

Their brain downshifts the emotional part of the brain and uses their frontal lobe. This reduces activity in the limbic system, nucleus accumbens, and right hemisphere. 

You alter their brain function. Isn’t that powerful?



This breath forces a pause.

Take one slow deep breath.

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Be discreet, of course. You don’t want to sound like a steam engine. 

This forced pause will induce a 4 to 5-second delay.

Without focused breathing, I tend to rush into more talking. That ruins the process. Learn to be comfortable with silence.

They need time to shift gears. Then, they need to decide whether they agree or not.

If you misread their emotional state, they will correct you.

They will find that empowering. And you gain precious insight for free. 

Their correction looks like this: “I am not angry; I am disappointed that you don’t trust me. “Boom. Now you understand much more.

The mindful breath also helps me relax and connect to the present. We increase parasympathetic nervous system activity and decrease sympathetic activity. That calm provides a place for clear thinking.


BONUS SKILL: Accusation Audit

Use this tool when negative feelings lurk. It is best reserved for bringing out strong emotions and difficult emotions. The ones you would like to avoid or ignore.

Use this sparingly, especially when you sense hate or suspicion. Negative emotions are already there. Addressing a specific emotion will reduce its impact.

We tend to avoid this out of fear we will make it worse. That is baseless. Denying the negative can worsen the problem. 

Prepare by thinking of every terrible thing they could think or say about you.

Now address those.

“You think I’m selfish and inconsiderate. “

“You may feel like we have mistreated you. “

“It sounds like you think we are the rich and powerful company trying to push you out of the market.”

They will have an opportunity to agree or deny your misperception. “No, no, it is that … ”

Either way, you gain an advantage.


In summary: Label Emotions.

1. Recognize emotional states.

2. Confirm that you perceived correctly.

3. Breathe. Create a pause for them to give you information.

Like every good thing in life, it will take work. But, practicing and building these skills will be worth it. Practice 20-30 minutes a day. In a few weeks, you will be unstoppable. Make tactical empathy your superpower.

Be sure to learn from the master, Chris Voss.


What are your thoughts? Have you developed your tactical empathy? Can you read body language, facial expressions, and label emotions? Are you skillful when influencing others or negotiating a contract? Have your negotiation skills improved? Try emotional labeling the next time you are bargaining.

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