Effective Negotiation: When Does Expressing Sadness Work?

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People are always claiming to know what factors contribute to effective negotiation, but a new study shows that expressing sadness can work in certain situations. The authors begin with a really interesting anecdote to illustrate:


“At the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, Robert F. Kennedy, a close aide to U.S.President John F. Kennedy, talked with Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. In this critical exchange, Robert Kennedy acted quite emotional by expressing sadness dramatically. He “was almost crying.” “I haven’t seen my children for days now,” he said almost breaking down in tears, in a sad way, “and the President hasn’t seen his either….I don’t know how much longer we can hold out against our generals,” according to the Soviet account (Allison, 1971; Divine, 1988; Khrushchev, 1970, p. 51). In response to the sadness conveyed by Robert Kennedy, Soviet Premier Khrushchev thought that “We could see that we had to reorient our position swiftly” and he “sent the Americans a note saying we agreed to remove our missiles and bombers” (Khrushchev, 1970, p. 51). Although many factors influenced Khrushchev’s decision, this anecdote suggests that expressions of sadness may be effective in securing acquiescence in conflict and negotiation.” (Sinaceur, Kopelman, Vasiljevic, Haag, 2015, p. 1).


As scientists are oftentimes inspired, but never satisfied with anecdotal evidence, the authors conducted three different experiments to investigate whether expressing sadness leads to more favorable negotiation outcomes. The experiments used simulated negotiation situations with easily measurable outcomes. One part was given training on how to act during the exercise, sometimes being told to show sadness, sometimes told to repress emotion, and in one experiment, told to show anger.



Results show that expressing sadness was effective in gaining more favorable negotiation outcomes, but only if one of four conditions is met. In these specific four scenarios, the listener who was exposed to sadness was moved to feel more concern for the person expressing the sadness, and therefore made more concessions to that person during negotiation. These are the four situations in which sadness works:


  • The person expressing sadness is perceived to have a low amount of power. People who are powerful don’t seem to need our commiseration as much as people who are more helpless.
  • The listener knows that there will be future interactions with the person expressing sadness. It’s more likely that people will invest in interpersonal relationship-building through commiseration when there is a good chance of working with that person in the future. It’s easier to be cold and indifferent to someone when you don’t have to ever see them again.
  • The listener believes that the relationship is collaborative. The interpersonal relationship aspects seem more important when collaboration (instead of competition) is supposed to be taking place.
  • The listener believes that it is inappropriate to blame others. Sadness, say the authors, conveys the sense that nobody is to blame for the current situation, and sadness is the only thing left to do. When the listener agrees with this, the expression of sadness gains more sympathy.


The researchers say that sadness can be more useful than anger. The first three situations were specifically chosen because research shows that anger does not work in those situations. In the fourth situation, sadness was pitted against anger, and results show that sadness was more effective. It’s easy to think that displays of anger are useful during negotiations, if only for the intimidation factor. This study shows otherwise; sadness—which might be avoided because it is perceived as showing weakness—is actually more effective in multiple different scenarios.



This study shows that sadness can be effective in gaining more favorable negotiation outcomes. However, one of four situational conditions must be present for this to work. These four situations also happen to be times when anger does not work, providing a major advantage to the emotion of sadness. Does this mean that we should all “fake-sad” during negotiations? Should we teach ourselves to cry on demand? The authors caution against this tactic, arguing that it presents very real ethical concerns. However, if sadness is one of the things that we feel, repressing it to appear “tough” might be a poor strategy. By harnessing the natural concern that human beings feel toward each other, displays of sadness might not only be the natural thing to do, but also the effective thing to do.