The value of emotional ambivalence

Emotional ambivalence is a particularly complex emotion characterized by tension and conflict that is felt when someone experiences both positive and negative emotions simultaneously.  

You might think that expressing emotional ambivalence during a negotiation is a weakness. And, you’d be right  if the negotiation is a zero-sum game, one in which the only way to win is for your partner to lose.  In such bargaining situations, expressing ambivalence can lead others to take advantage. But in some negotiations, showing emotional ambivalence can actually be an asset.

According to a new study led by Naomi B. Rothman, assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at Lehigh, expressing emotional ambivalence in a negotiation can be a productive influencing tactic – more so than anger or neutrality – and can lead to better outcomes for all.

However, for the ambivalence to be fruitful, the negotiation must take place in a “cooperative” context – one in which it is possible to make trades and expand resources that lead to a win-win result: for example, a conversation between a job candidate and potential employer that is framed as having potential upside for both parties.

Rothman and her colleague, Gregory Northcraft, associate dean of faculty at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Illinois, have published their findings in a new paper titled, “Unlocking integrative potential: Expressed emotional ambivalence and negotiation outcomes” in the January 2015 edition of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 

Though there is a growing body of research on simple emotions—such as happiness or anger—and their influence on negotiation outcomes, the work of Rothman and her colleagues is among the first to explore the effect of a complex emotion on negotiation outcomes.

The authors suggest that expressing ambivalence is beneficial because it invites assertive (non-yielding) behavior in negotiation partners. This assertive behavior is critical for growing the pie in negotiation as it helps negotiators avoid unilateral concessions and split-the-difference compromises, and instead encourages problem solving that promotes the discovery and development of agreements that integrate both parties’ wishes

Combining cooperation and assertiveness creates a negotiation “sweet spot” - and it is the expression of emotional ambivalence that allows negotiators to reach it.

“One of the most important implications of our findings is that though many assume that expressing emotional ambivalence during negotiation  conveys weakness and therefore would make one vulnerable to attack– perhaps because it signals uncertainty. Our findings suggest that  peoples’ knee-jerk reaction to suppress ambivalence could be misguided,” said Rothman.

She added: “The findings could prompt business managers and leaders to consider creating cooperative work environments and then expressing their own emotional ambivalence in order to convey openness to input and encourage mutually beneficial problem-solving.”


Story by Lori Friedman