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0309 PD: The stories we tell ourselves

Gregorio Billikopf Published on 06 February 2009

Our emotions regularly get in the way of effective negotiations at the farm and at home.

Nothing kills creativity quicker than anger, pride, embarrassment, envy, greed, jealousy or other strong negative emotions. Anger is often an expression of fear or lack of confidence in our ability to get what we think we want. Emotional outbursts tend to escalate rather than solve a conflict. If we can improve our ability to manage our emotions and respond without getting defensive, we have gone a long way toward improved negotiation skills. A friend, Kamran Alavi, wisely said, “When we permit negative emotions, such as anger, to take control of us, this is a sure sign we are about to step into a trap.”

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It is difficult to hide our emotions, especially when we feel there is much in the balance. Our body language, particularly our facial gestures and voice tonal qualities, often give us away. We are not emotionless robots. However, it is better to describe negative emotions (e.g., a feeling of disappointment) rather than showing them. I recently attended a fantastic seminar on “crucial conversations” put on by Linda Manton and Darlene Liesch of the University of California. I got so much out of it. There is a great book by the same name, by Patterson et. al.

The authors of “Crucial Conversations” contend that negative emotion is always preceded by telling ourselves a story. This may happen in milliseconds. The more critical the situation, or the more important the relationship we have with an individual, the more likely that we are vulnerable to such storytelling. We may presume to understand another’s feelings or intentions, or we may come up with the worst possible scenario in terms of future consequences.

Some years ago, I was asked to talk to a group of young adults. I noticed that as I spoke a young man would lean toward the young lady beside him and whisper in her ear. I found this to be very distracting and annoying. I feel very strongly that only one person should speak at a time, and so it was that every time he began to talk, I stopped. When I stopped, he stopped, and so it went. I later found out he was interpreting for a visitor from Japan! The story I had constructed, however, was that this individual was flirting with the young lady and was being rude to me.

Have you ever gone into a difficult situation with intentions of putting forth your best behavior, only to fail part-way through the experience? After attending this “crucial conversations” seminar, I have come to understand that this happens because we permitted the negative story to prevail. In other words, it will be hard to control our negative emotions as long as we give preeminence to our unconstructive stories. As we give people the benefit of the doubt, and build alternative narratives that avoid the presumption of evil, and allow for honorable or noble motives, we will succeed in managing our emotions. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

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—Excerpts from University of California press release

Gregorio Billikopf
Labor Management Adviser for the University of California

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