Meet Your Nemesis

June 23rd, 2009 - 34 Comments

In Sunday’s New York Times, Smeal’s Barbara Gray is quoted in the “Career Couch” column about how to handle annoying and irritating colleagues. Gray says that a colleague who really grates your nerves could be your “nemesis,” or someone who irritates you on a psychological level unrelated to work.

In a 2007 article she penned for Smeal’s annual report, Gray offers some advice for negotiating with these nemeses:

We need to learn to “handle” our emotions, rather than hiding them, and remain open in the face of the other’s strong feelings. When it seems like your opponent is pushing all your hot buttons, it’s best to take a moment to assess the situation and confront the emotions that you’re feeling. This process is what I term “negotiating with your nemesis,” and mastering it makes negotiations with other people much more productive.

… In order to counteract our nemeses and their potential for emotional escalation, we must understand our reactions and learn how best to deal with them. The following steps can help in this difficult task:

1. Label your opponent’s behavior (to yourself). It’s okay to tell yourself that your counterpart’s behavior during the negotiation process is disturbing, distasteful, or even despicable; it may well be just that. But you must separate this judgment from the emotion you experience.

2. Label your own feeling. Take the time to notice and experience what you are feeling before you react. If you have a strong reaction to your opponent, this may be your nemesis. It’s perfectly fine to step away and calm down before returning to the negotiating table.

3. Step outside of your comfort zone. Handling emotions while negotiating can be upsetting. This process will likely make you feel uncomfortable. It’s important to recognize this and understand that both your reactions and those of your counterpart are normal and worth examining.

4. Identify and examine the assumptions that lead to your emotional reaction. Feelings arise when an assumption or taboo that we hold is violated. Finding the root assumption and realizing that it may not always be true can help us deal with the emotions that arise.

5. Express your own feelings appropriately. Rather than acting out your emotions, explain how you feel about the action of your opponent and why. This will help you express the emotion appropriately and ensure that your interests get a hearing without escalating the conflict.

Handling your own emotions is only half of the negotiation process. A skillful negotiator will have a repertoire of moves at hand to navigate through the emotional expressions of his or her opponent and redirect the negotiation to the important issues. Consider the following steps:

1. Separate your counterpart’s emotion from its form of expression. Consider the emotion as a signal that the person is trying to express an important underlying concern. Then look past the emotional display and try to figure out what is prompting the other party to act the way he or she is.

2. Turn the table: Imagine you felt the way he or she does. If you were acting the same way as your opponent, why would you be doing that? For instance, if your opponent is angry, think about why you might get angry. When you are angry, there is a good reason. So too for your counterpart; listen and ask questions to uncover the root cause of the emotion. For example, quite often anger arises from perceived disrespect or loss of control.

3. Reflect back the emotion that is being expressed. Frequently, when people have strong feelings, they just want to be heard. By reflecting back at the feeling level, you provide confirmation that you are listening and the concern is being heard.

4. Ask questions to uncover the interest or concern behind the feeling. Remember that your opponent’s underlying concern is legitimate (e.g., to be respected) even if his or her expression of it appears childish, irritating, or hurtful to you. Your actions may unwittingly have triggered their nemesis. By finding his or her concern, you can put it on the negotiation table.

… We all have nemeses and acknowledging yours is not likely to be easy or flattering; but being able to negotiate with your nemesis is necessary if you want to become a skillful and unflappable negotiator. Once you reconcile with your nemesis or recognize someone else’s, you can refocus on finding solutions to the issues that are critical to you both.

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