Negotiation Stress

What Mediators can Learn from Navy Seals

The US Navy SEALS are one of the most revered fighting forces in the world. As negotiators, there are few things we can take from professional warriors; as a mediator, there is even less, but the thing even the most devout pacifist can take from these special operators is how to deal with stress.

In training, SEALs learn about the big four to help them face stressful situations:

  • Goal Setting
  • Positive Self Talk
  • Deep Breathing
  • Visualization

This article will examine the impacts of stress on you and on your negotiations and give you the Navy SEALs’ secret keeping stress from becoming dysfunctional. After reading this article you will be better equipped to operate in hostile environments and respond to negotiation challenges.

How Does Stress Impact You?

Stress stimulates your sympathetic nervous system or what I like to think of as your being chased by a bear nervous system. Humans are creatures of evolution. When we are chased by bears (or stressed by high pressure negotiations), blood leaves non essential areas and is put into our muscles (for running), our visual cortex of the brain, (for acutely seeing the threat in the dark). We slow digestion and blood filtration (when you are being chased by a bear is no time time for a washroom break) and we stop thinking creatively.
stress performance graph

Why Does Stress Matter

The goal of negotiations is to reach wise agreements. Often time that means generating creative solutions. When you or your other are under threat and you let your chased by a bear nervous system come to the table you are unlikely to craft wise agreements. If you are the mediator, even when you are not under threat, you may feel pressure from the parties, the subject matter, the level of discourse or a million other factors. When this happens you are less likely to be valuable to the parties.

The Big Four

When training Navy Seals over a number of years, the trainers noticed a pattern of four behaviours that predicted which recruits would be able to make it through their grueling training regime. These behaviours became known as the Big Four and are now taught to special forces recruits and first responders to help them manage through high stress situations.
The Big Four behaviours are:

  • Goal Setting
  • Positive Self Talk
  • Deep Breathing
  • Visualization

Goal Setting

Setting a final goal is good and gives you something to work towards. Unfortunately it just as often results in stress as it does relief. The key to goal setting is to look for a number of goals along the way. The positive emotions you get from accomplishing even small goals can give you the desire and habit of reaching your goals.

Positive Self Talk

There are few people in most people’s circle that are as critical of them as themselves. Self critique and awareness is fine; however, care needs to be taken that reflection doesn’t become self flagellation. Reflection should take place after the negotiation. During the negotiation it is useful to tell yourself that a good deal is possible and that you and your team are the ones that can find it.

Deep Breathing

When you find the stress mounting, and your choices becoming less clear, it is useful to find your reset button. The Hindus call this type of breathing Prana or life breath; it has been practiced as part of meditation for centuries. Taking a second for deep breathing can act as a reset switch on your stress level.


Visualization is imagining yourself achieving the goal or goals that you have set. As mediators we already use this as part of our repertoire when we ask the parties to describe the situation beyond the conflict. As a party or the mediator, the time may not be right for such an exercise; however when the stress levels start to climb it may be useful to take a minute to realize that the state of conflict is temporary by visualizing the post conflict relationship.

Let’s hear from you

As a negotiator, party to conflict or mediator how do you deal with stress at the negotiation? If you try using the Big Four and they work for you I would love to hear about it. Leave a comment down below. If you want more about how to care for yourself during late night negotiations check out this article on collective bargaining.

Posted in Mediation, Negotiation.

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  1. Pingback: Actionable Steps for Controlling Your Emotions While Negotiating

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