As a professional negotiator, your days aren’t filled with one on one meetings that involve you saying “So, tell me about your childhood.” You’re not a psychologist, after all.

Nevertheless, successful negotiation is predicated on successful application of basic psychological principles. All the more so when folks experience symptoms of emotional dysregulation that lead to Major League Baseball velocity tissue box throws in the boardroom (true story — I ducked in time) and blow ups that cost hundreds of thousand of dollars (also true — the other side may as well have thrown the deal across the room and out the window) like those characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

This post will walk you through some crucial negotiation skills to manage and calm volatile moments over the course of your deal, saving and making both relationships and dollars along the way.  

First introduced in 1938, the term ‘borderline personality’ initially referred to someone who ‘bordered’ on the line between neurosis and psychosis. Fast forward almost 100 years, and the colloquial and clinical meaning of BPD has changed considerably. Many clinical psychologists would prefer to rename BPD with a term like Emotional Regulation Disorder, as the primary symptoms boil down to just this: emotional instability, inappropriate anger, mood swings, impulsiveness, and pervasive patterns of instability.

Of course, I’m also not a psychologist, so I won’t bore you with the diagnostic criteria for BPD (you can, of course find that in the DSM, or summarized here).

What matters for our purposes is how to deal with folks who, BPD diagnosis notwithstanding, are experiencing heightened emotions over the course of a negotiation. Here’s what Dr. Mary Medeiros, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology had to teach us in The Persuasion Lab (catch the full episode with her here).

Bring Mindfulness to the Table

It matters — sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars or more — that you stay calm, cool, and collected while in the heat of a negotiation. There are many ways you can do this (check out this podcast episode for more on the benefits of mindfulness and negotiation), but knowing when to hit pause is a foundational negotiation skill.

Once you’ve gotten the signal that things are getting a little bit overheated, here are some phrases to bring the room to a pause:

  • “Let’s all take a few deep breaths and calm down.”
  • “Why don’t we take a 5 minute break”
  • “Let’s all take a step back.” Note — if you use this one, literally step back if you’re standing, or push your chair back. The physical act of increasing space helps to calm the atmosphere.

Emphasize the Grey

Folks with BPD see the world in black and white. You’re good or bad. They love you or hate you. You’re in or out. It’s a trumpet worthy solution, or the world’s gone to hell. If you hear talk along these lines from folks in your negotiation, ask some tactical negotiation questions to emphasize the grey area in between the extremes:

  • “What would be your perfect scenario?”
  • “What would be the worst scenario?”
  • “Tell me, what would be a workable compromise in your opinion?”

For one, this strategy will engage the other side in solution finding, which will enfranchise them and make the deal more durable over the long-term, should a deal be struck. Second, by engaging in this kind of cooperative process, you will increase perceived commonality and therefore likeability.

You can pour a solid concrete foundation for a deal when you use these four aspects (enfranchisement, cooperation, commonality, and likeability) over the course of your negotiation.

Support Emotional Regulation

At the end of it all, you’re not responsible for anyone else’s behavior but your own. Depending on the circumstances of your negotiation (familiarity, length of relationship, type of deal, mutual goodwill, etc) there are a few things you can do to support emotional regulation on both sides of the table.

For your part, if you’re walking into a situation where the other party is characteristically hot-headed, roleplay ahead of time. This is an everyday example of a negotiation skill I practice with private clients. It’s also an available feature of office hours in the Premium Plus Persuasion Lab. Whether you practice with a pro like me or a colleague, have that person get red hot and up and in your face to master your zen. It’ll show when it counts, and this skill alone has the power to save both key relationships and dollars.

When the real life negotiation moment comes, show your zen by modeling desired behavior. If the other person’s voice is booming with rage, keep your voice calm, quiet, and steady.

Diplomatically provide reassurance that things are going to be okay, and that the negotiation is a process you’re working through together. Panic can set in when things don’t seem to be going our way, and a calm word of encouragement can work wonders in getting everybody back on board and rowing in the same direction.

Finally, if someone is off the handle for something that really isn’t a crisis, you can help to differentiate a true crisis from an inconvenience. A raging forest fire is a crisis… a fireplace fire that’s overheated the house? Not so much. Provide perspective as you can to help cool the flames.

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Increase Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance is just what it sounds: the ability to tolerate emotions, thoughts, and situations, that are distressing. Often when someone is emotionally labile, they have a low threshold of tolerance for their own thoughts and feelings. While therapeutic increase in distress tolerance is something best done, well, in therapy, there are some ways you can support someone’s ability to deal.

Take a break as needed. Always on a road trip there’s one person who just wants to get in the car and go. And always there’s someone who drinks too much coffee, then downs 32 oz of water. Everybody’s happier in the long run (and drier, of course) if the appropriate pit stops are taken.  You may want this negotiation over, but taking the needed breaks will ensure a more durable deal over the long run, and a better experience all around. Use the tips above to get to your negotiation rest areas.

Keep a distraction in the room. We all like food, to the point that an unconscious spillover of positive association occurs with people we share food with… or images… or slogans. Not to mention that having a snack, drink to stir or refill takes the edge off the attention being given to what else is happening over the course of a conversation. Plus the benefits of keeping blood sugar levels level (you can learn more about the importance of that with the Israeli parole board).

Set a Solid Boundary… and keep it. 

If we’re talking diagnosable BPD, an unshakeable fear of abandonment plus impulsivity lead to characteristic behaviors of ignoring any and all boundaries. I was once on a team with one member who had ‘emergencies’ every weekend… particularly Sundays. Finally, to the relief of other team members who were feeling the pressure too, I let that member know “I don’t work on Sundays. Ever.”  Problem solved.

Furthermore, keep your boundaries without exception. If you’ve said you don’t work Sundays, don’t pick up the phone or check email on a Sunday. Once an exception has been made, the door is open for just one more, and another, and another.

Save your time and sanity — set boundaries and keep them. Of course, if you’re not sure how to go about it, you can listen to this episode of The Persuasion Lab Podcast with boundary guru Dr Katherine Hofmann. Or go directly to the source for guidance on how to set and keep your boundaries.

These key points should help you in your more difficult negotiations professionally. If you have someone in your life who does have bona fide BPD, Dr Medeiros recommends two books that might help: Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger and Talking to a Loved One with Borderline Personality Disorder by Jerold J. Kreisman, MD.

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