Dealing With Difficult Negotiators

Hugh MacDonald

In dealing with difficult negotiators, there are four things that should be kept in mind. I call them the 4 Bs: be calm, be prepared, be focused and be blunt.

Be calm. No matter how others act, what strategy they use or what behavior they demonstrate, we need to stay in control. This is especially true when we feel blindsided or surprised. If we react without thinking, in anger or with emotion, we will almost certainly regret it later. Notice I said, "without thinking." Reason may suggest that we let others know how we feel, and honest emotion, when kept in check, can be helpful. Before a negotiation session, prepare yourself to be calm. Think about what might happen. World-class athletes have learned the power of imagining each element of the coming race or contest before they go out and do it. The mental preparation is valuable in anticipating what will happen. We, too, should mentally prepare for a negotiation session. Take the time to imagine what you will say, how the others might respond and how you will deal with each of the possibilities. Imagine them doing or saying something that might trigger an emotional response from you. What would you do or say if that happens? Thinking about it in advance will help you control yourself in the room. The French have a saying, "l’esprit de's escalier," which loosely translated means "the spirit of the staircase." This refers to the thoughts we have going down the stairs after a meeting—thoughts about what we wish we had said or done. We can avoid these regrets—and remain calm—by preparing our reactions in advance.

Be prepared. Forewarned is forearmed. The more we know and prepare for a negotiation, the less likely it is that we will be surprised. It also improves our confidence in managing difficult negotiators. If it is the first time you’re negotiating with someone, find out as much as you can about him. Has anyone else on your team worked with him before? Does anyone in your network know him? What can they tell you about his style? If a team is involved, who is on the team? What do you know about each member?

Be focused. Ignore the noise and listen for the music. Remain focused on your objectives and don’t let styles and behaviors take you off track. Take the view that the style being used by the difficult negotiator results from past learning. That is, they use it because they believe it has worked for them in the past and will work for them now. We need to understand what it is they want to achieve and help them achieve it. Help them see that the behavior isn’t advancing their interests. Keep the discussion focused on everyone’s needs—especially your own. Avoid going down unproductive pathways. Remember the First Law of Holes: Stop digging!

Be blunt. If they’re tough, we need to be assertive in equal or greater measure. We should always be unconditionally constructive and respectful. That doesn’t mean that we let others walk over us.

I learned a valuable lesson early in my career when I became responsible for a relationship with a senior executive who had a reputation as an enfant terrible. A brilliant man, a former project manager with NASA, he liked to remind people that, in his case, project management was rocket science. On my first day on the job he left me a voice message asking me to call him. Thirty minutes later, he left another message that expressed surprise that I hadn’t yet called, and, within a few seconds, his recorded message switched to frustration, then anger, then vitriol. By the end of the two-minute voice mail message, he was screaming and swearing into the machine. At the time, I hadn’t met him and knew very little about him or his reputation.

When I got out of the hour-long meeting I was in, I listened to his message and realized I had a client who was a workplace bully with a serious anger management problem. I called him back and quietly told him I just got his message and wanted him to know that his language and behavior was unacceptable and I would not tolerate it. I told him that if he wanted to do business with someone else, he was free to do so, but if we were going to work together I expected that he would show me the same respect I would show him. To my surprise, my assertive response was immediately met with a contrite apology.

I worked closely with this fellow for several years until he retired, and he never again raised his voice to me or abandoned a tone of respect and professionalism. I wish I could say this was also true of how he treated others. I tried with limited success to change his behavior, but I came to understand that his bullying was a rational choice—for him. It was a test he had developed. He respected people who stood up to him and walked all over those who didn’t. He would often wink at me behind the back of some hapless project director after a severe tongue lashing.

I certainly don’t support his methods, but it did reinforce in me the need to stand up for yourself and your ideas. Don’t let anybody use negotiation tactics as an excuse to show disrespect or verbal abuse. It is a form of violence in the workplace and is absolutely not to be accepted.

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