Practicing Emotional Intelligence in Diplomatic Negotiations


Major breakthroughs in the history of diplomacy, such as the de-escalation of the Cuban missile crisis, the Iran nuclear deal or the Colombian peace agreement positively shaped the course of countries and arguably the world. As professionals working in the field of foreign affairs driven to promote mutual understanding and de-escalation, we should ask ourselves: What particular set of skills enabled the stakeholders to achieve these agreements? In spite of the fact that the surrounding circumstances exert great influence, the interpersonal relationship between negotiators cannot be overlooked.  

Relationships between people are a cornerstone element of the job, not only in negotiations, but in foreign policy as a general place of work. A term that was coined towards the end of the last century is emotional intelligence that emphasises the dynamics of such relationships.  

Roughly speaking, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, identify, evaluate and control emotions in oneself and, critically, others. Although there is much scholarly debate concerning its many issues, such as its measurements, definitions, attainability, as professionals in foreign affairs, we are most concerned with its application in everyday work.  

To illustrate its use, let us look at the internal and the external dimension of emotional intelligence. Far from being only rational beings, human actions are also influenced by emotions, especially when tragedies or high-stakes political affairs are involved.   

Internally, these emotions can make us more likely to adopt an open (positive) or narrow (negative) view, thereby affecting our ability to analyse situations (e.g. political statements of partners, negotiations, or a crisis in a country). Being able to identify and manage our emotions has proven effects on our own mental and physical health, which in turn is related to overall work performance and life quality.  

Emotions also affect the way that we approach people. In foreign affairs, building a network and good working relationships with a range of different people is important for the overall success of the greater mission of the organisation (in this case being the state, which is interested in improving commercial, cultural and political relations with other countries). Also, with the rise of fake news, emotions become increasingly instrumentalised via messages on social media platforms that can have significant implications for national and international politics. Therefore, developing skills to properly read, interpret and manage emotions triggered by social media will indubitably be part of the repertoire of diplomats in the 21st century. 

Although digital emotional intelligence is becoming more and more important, the lion share of difficult negotiations are still done vis-à-vis. This means that being able to read, understand manage the emotions of counterparts is still a crucial success factor for the work in international relations and diplomacy. Successful examples of this could be Catherine Ashton’s decisive role in the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal and the conflict in Ukraine, in which she stood out for “her patience, her handling of people and her ability to be frank but never aggressive”. Also the success of German chancellor Angela Merkel, in the male-dominated international arena, was accredited by some to her ability to use emotional intelligence successfully.  

Considering its impact, it is regrettable that emotional intelligence is not only severely lacking presence in study curricula, but most importantly, in contexts of war and conflict. Here, emotions, coupled with cultural and/or ethnic differences, are intensifying, rather than deescalating, spirals of misunderstanding and continuing violence.  However, it is precisely in these contexts where emotions (both positive and negative) have a big role to play for conflict transformation.  

In sum, it can be said that emotional intelligence pays tribute to the role that emotions play for ourselves and for our interactions with others. The earlier we recognise the need to develop our skills in this area, the sooner we will be prepared to find solutions for the challenges of diplomacy and international relations in the 21st century.