Students and clients often ask, “how can I cope with nervousness before a negotiation?” We all feel that way. Here are twelve suggestions.
1. Prepare Well. One of the first ways to deal with nervousness is to consider your experience before an exam. If you’re not well prepared, you tend to be much more nervous than if you are well-prepared. (Of course, you’re still going to have some feeling before the exam, and to some extent that may be a good thing.) That means that preparation is a crucial way to manage your feelings. I’ve designed the I FORESAW IT mnemonic** in part to help you do just that. You can read about it here. Students often write, “I calmed down once I began working through the mnemonic.” One reason is because it gives you a way to put your nervous energy to good use. As psychologists say, “action absorbs anxiety.”
2. Visualize and Role Play. Moreover, certain I FORESAW IT concepts such as Empathy and Reactions & Responses can help lower your stress further because they encourage you to visualize and role-play, which can reduce your fear. Indeed, don’t waste your fear- put it to full use by rehearsing in advance the things you’re afraid about. “What if she says this? That?” Think through good responses. You may not be able to remember a script, but anticipating the problems beforehand is a great way to defuse their power. (Try role-playing with a friend or teammate for extra realism.) Factual research can also reduce stress, since fear of the unknown is often a big contributing factor. Fight fear with knowledge.
3. Find A Strong Alternative to Agreement. Of course, developing your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) is a very good way to calm down. But even if you’re BATNA is weak, good preparation may help.
4. Use a Topics, Targets and Tradeoffs Grid. Bringing a Topics, Targets, and Tradeoffs grid with you to the talks can also give you confidence. That’s something you prepare at the end of your I FORESAW IT plan. It can serve as a guide when you’re not sure what to suggest next. For more information, go to this page my website at professorfreeman.com and click on “I FORESAW IT 2018 Edition Really” to find an essay about the mnemonic itself. Read the last part of the essay, which discusses this Topics, Targets, and Tradeoffs tool.
5. Consider Relaxation Techniques and Prayer. I can’t vouch for relaxation techniques myself, but my wife tells me she’s had a lot of success before auditions using a simple relaxation exercise, tensing and releasing one part of her body and then another in a quiet place a few minutes before she goes on stage. (If you are so inclined, it may be worth considering prayer too- prayer for wisdom, for strength, for courage, and for the other person.)
6. Consider that Nervousness Does Not Predict Performance. But what if you prepare and you still feel nervous? Here’s a lesson I’ve learned from reading about a thousand reports about students’ real life negotiations-nervousness doesn’t predict performance. Very often students write, “I still felt pretty nervous going in, but afterwards I was very happy with how things went.” Especially if you’ve done your homework, residual anxiety is not a sign of what’s to come.
7. Work with Teammate(s). But what if you find that nervousness is still a problem, perhaps because it makes the negotiation process so unpleasant that you want to avoid it? Or because you find that nervousness is effecting your results? One partial solution is to bring a teammate. You can ask her to take the lead if you feel you’re losing it. Alternatively, you can agree beforehand who’ll do what in the talks so you can concentrate on your duties.
8. Go to the Balcony. But what if you don’t have a teammate? If you don’t (or even if you do), it can be wise to be ready to ‘go to the balcony’ if you feel you’re starting to lose it; that is, excuse yourself for a legitimate reason, and regroup. Most of us can only cope with so much stress. Students often say that taking a break is one of the best things they can do.
9. Watch For What Helps You. Another thing you can do is pay attention to your feelings and make notes during or after each of your next few negotiations. What makes you calmer and more focused? Perhaps the phone helps (or hurts). Perhaps being at a meeting is a particularly challenging (or easy) setting. As you spot where you face the biggest challenge, you may be able to negotiate about where and when you’ll negotiate. In fact, top diplomats routinely do ‘pre-negotiation’ to figure out the setting etc. of the substantive talks. You can do the same.
10. Listen to Praise. Another thing you can do is to take in praise you receive from teammates, colleagues and friends about your negotiating. If you’re not hearing any, consider asking a teammate to give you truthful, positive feedback first. If she has other feedback to share, ask her to discuss it constructively. Indeed, a debriefing with a teammate after an intense negotiation is usually a wise idea.
11. Use the I FORESAW IT to Cope with Sharp Tactics. But what if you find yourself coping with sharp bargaining tactics and aggressive negotiating by the other negotiator? You can use the I FORESAW IT as a ‘first aid kit’ for responding to manipulation. For example, if the other negotiator uses a technique called limited authority (“I have no authority to give you this”), you can turn to the mnemonic for advice. One response, using the letter W (“Who”) is to say, “OK, who does have authority.” Another response, using the letter O (“Options”), is to say “OK, what options do you have authority to give? How about…”).
12. Slow Down, Listen, and Ask Questions. But what if you’re so nervous in the talks that you’re losing the ability to focus? What if you feel like you’re not thinking fast enough? Relax- it’s usually not about thinking fast, but slowing down. To do that, try actively listening to what the other person is saying, and asking some simple questions.
EXTRA. Build Rapport. In the talks themselves, consider spending time slowing down, and getting acquainted with the other negotiator for a while before you get into substantitive talks. Not every negotiation lends itself to rapport building, but when appropriate it may help both of you. (Keep in mind that the other negotiator is probably feeling nervous too.)
*I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.
**I FORESAW IT is a mnemonic that lists ten questions a negotiator should ask and answer before a negotiation. For details, go to the home page and click on “I FORESAW IT.”