Why Bad Negotiations Are Like Bears - And What To Do About It

Sometimes, even with our best efforts, our negotiations won’t go how we’d like. And then what? And then we think that every future negotiation will obviously fall apart, result in a no, or generally be a torturous, unsuccessful misery fest. 

Crazy as it sounds, there’s good reason our mind takes us down this path. Human brains are wired to remember the negative experiences more than the positive ones. It’s what scientists refer to as the “negativity bias.”

For our ancestors, our very survival depended on remembering negative information like, “There are bears in that cave!” Positive or neutral information like, “That cave’s a great place to watch the sunset,” was a good-to-know, but it wasn’t a need-to-know for our subconscious.

Today, bad negotiations are like the bears – we remember them in detail because our brains are trying to protect us from future “dangerous” situations. Our positive or neutral experiences end up less memorable, because like the sunsets, our brains don’t see them as a priority. 

Dream Client Nightmare

I recently had a situation that was far more bear than sunset. When I first started my business, I spent seven months cultivating what was going to be my largest contract to date: a yearlong program for a well-funded professional association. 

The women I met through the planning process were total badasses, achieving professional success within a male dominated industry. Over lunch, they talked candidly about their frustrations with being told that success meant “acting like a man,” traded horror stories about golf tournaments gone wrong, and laughed about the ridiculousness of it all. They were an ideal client. 

After numerous phone and in-person meetings, I developed an extensive proposal for a program that I was elated to execute. After some easy back and forth, we negotiated a rate that would provide them great content and me considerable financial stability. I put together a contract and waited for them to sign. And waited. 

Months of excruciating back and forth followed. The attorney had some edits to the contract. My contact person changed. The professional development budget was cut. I agreed to pare down the project to a tenth of what they’d initially agreed to...and never heard from them again.

There were four key steps to bouncing back after it happened:

Deal with the Feels. The full range of emotions I experienced over the course of this negotiation was, in retrospect, almost comically dramatic. Leaving my preliminary conversations with the client, I felt euphoric – completely energized and certain that I’d found my “calling” and my business would be successful. After it fizzled, I was exhausted and insecure, concerned about my finances, and admittedly more than a little frustrated with both the client and myself.

Once you’ve recognized and named your emotions, strive to accept them rather than push them away.

As anxiety coach Tim Kershenstine says, "Emotions, like waves in the ocean, will be there and continuously change. Learn to surf the waves of emotions, as opposed to the futile effort to control or change them."

However you’re feeling, I encourage you to be present with what’s coming up and to be gentle with yourself.

Let it go. I had to stop beating myself up looking for every mistake I made or red flag that I had missed. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic “You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters."I could have kept ruminating on the situation and playing the woulda-coulda-shouldas about what I could have done differently, but I wasn’t learning anything from it.

Over time, it gets easier. To quote a very **wise cartoon princess, “It's funny how some distance makes everything seem small...”

Counteract the negativity bias. While it was tempting to extrapolate from the experience and imagine what this negotiation meant about me as a negotiator and my future as an entrepreneur, I looked back at my client list and remembered all the negotiations that went well.

When a negotiation falls apart, remind yourself that this negotiation is just one of many.

Look for the silver lining. I found little mini-successes within this failed negotiation. While it wasn’t exactly enjoyable at the time, I:

  • Learned about the specific challenges women face in this male-dominated industry
  • Developed my largest proposal to date
  • Discovered a ton about the client cultivation process – and when to say no

Not to play Pollyanna here, but even in the worst circumstances, there’s usually at least something you can learn. Consider it AFOG (Another F*ing Opportunity for Growth).

Of course, I hope all future negotiations go perfectly, but in the event that they don’t, know that you are capable of bouncing back. Just because this negotiation didn’t go as you’d planned, doesn’t mean that you won’t ace your next one. 

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.