Dealing with Difficult Issues

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Most people are willing to negotiate in good faith. They don’t resort to tricks or intimidation. Every once in a while, though, you might encounter someone who takes a less principled approach. You need to be prepared to deal with people who don’t play fair. It is not cynicism to prepare for the possibility that someone will try to bend the rules, especially when those rules are unwritten. It is simply good preparation, and realism. Some people are unscrupulous, but if you know how to handle them it need not be the end of the world.

Being Prepared for Environmental Tactics

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Using environmental tactics to gain an advantage in a negotiation doesn’t happen that often, but negotiators need to be prepared for it. One rather obvious case is the executive who refuses to come out from behind his desk and forces the other side to sit in visitors’ chairs. If this should happen, the best response might be, “I’m sorry, but I need some space to spread out my notes. Is there a conference room available?”

The host of the negotiations is in a position of power. To deny that this is the case would be wholly naïve and counter-productive. However, the way they use this power will differ between hosts. Sometimes you will come up against a host who turns conditions to their advantage, and if you do not at least say something about it you run the risk of your “opponent” feeling that they can do and say anything and get away with it. Even if you merely make a request for an improvement in the conditions, you will make them aware that you have noticed what they have done.

It may be that you feel you can deal with any environmental tactics that are thrown at you. If you show an ability to negotiate competently despite the conditions which have been foisted upon you, this may well win you the respect of your opponent. You should not have to do this, though, and it is sensible to put your opponent on notice that you will not be messed around – politely, but firmly if necessary.

Dealing with Personal Attacks

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Any negotiation will be more productive if you are able to focus on problems and not personalities. Unfortunately, the other parties in the negotiation may not take this approach. 

There are a number of reasons why negotiators sometimes engage in personal attacks:

  • They may think that this type of behavior will give them an advantage in the negotiation.
  • They may see any disagreement with their position as a threat to their self-image.
  • They may feel that they are not being treated fairly or respectfully.

Sometimes you can avert personal attacks by demonstrating from the very start that you respect the other parties and their positions. A respectful opening sets a positive tone for the negotiation.

If the other party resists your efforts to establish an atmosphere of mutual respect, you might try saying something like, “Let’s get back to the issues.” If the other party still engages in personal attacks, it may be time to suspend the negotiation. Personal attacks are never helpful, although there may be some people on the opposite side who feel that by acting or speaking in an abusive manner they can intimidate you.

The advice given by many a parent to the child who has been the subject of teasing in the schoolyard does apply here. What someone says something against you; it often says more about them than it does about you. It is wise to take account of the factors which have led to their behavior – it may have come at a particularly emotional point in negotiations, or they may just have been attempting to assert some kind of superiority over you. By maintaining your dignity, you will be held in high regard.

It helps no-one if you respond in kind to personal attacks. All that will do is give the person who attacked you the reaction which tells them that they have scored a direct hit. You will do better by simply requesting to get on with negotiations and ignore unhelpful contributions. It may seem like an attempt to back out of a confrontation, but it is no sign of weakness if you refuse to respond to childishness.

Controlling Your Emotions 

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Recognizing and controlling emotions is an aspect of “emotional intelligence.”

Emotional intelligence is different from what might be called academic intelligence, the type of intelligence that enables some people to get good grades in school and score well on standardized tests. More and more people are realizing that it takes more than just this type of intelligence to succeed in the workplace and in life.

In a negotiation, emotional intelligence involves recognizing how you and the other party are responding emotionally to the discussion. If the emotional temperature in the room seems to be heating up, you may decide that it’s time to take a break. There is little benefit to allowing a negative atmosphere to build in a boardroom and turn into something which can torpedo negotiations at a delicate stage.

You will recognize when the emotional temperature is rising beyond where it should be, because discussions will become less focused, voices will be raised and the silences will be all the more silent. At this point in negotiations it might be wise to suggest a short break for everyone to go and have a coffee, or take some fresh air. You can then come back to the negotiations with the atmosphere cleared somewhat and try to make some progress without the risk of people losing their temper.

Deciding When It’s Time to Walk Away

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It would be wonderful if the atmosphere of every negotiation was warm and friendly, but that’s not the way things work in the real world. By their very nature, negotiations involve a kind of adversarial relationship. For a negotiation to proceed, the two parties do not need to have friendly relations, but they do need to keep personal conflicts and unfair tactics from interfering with the process.

It’s time to walk away from a negotiation if:

  • The other party makes you feel threatened or extremely uncomfortable.
  • The other party uses unfair tactics that make it impossible to have an equitable negotiation.

You may feel like walking away is an admission of defeat, and this may inspire you to try and make things work even when the prospect of that happening is becoming more and more remote. However, there are times when the other party simply crosses a line, and you would be well advised to show them that this is not going to be permitted. Calling an end to the meeting, with an invitation to recommence negotiations at a later date, may be the best thing for everyone.

Some negotiators use tactics which are simply and purely threatening to try and ensure that you bend to their will. The reason that many people do this is because it often works. It will, however, only work if it is allowed to work. If people walked away from negotiations every time someone tried to cheat them or intimidate them, then that kind of tactic would die out. It is good to have principles in this regard, because no-one ever got a good deal by making concessions to a threatening negotiator.

Case Study

Todd was a difficult person to deal with. He often felt the need to posture aggressively and refused to back down an inch from his negotiations. He often refused to meet people on their terms or accommodate them, and was known to use personal attacks against people when he was debating or bargaining with them. When Andy met with Todd about a potential business deal, he was taken aback by Todd’s brash behavior. When Todd got more aggressive, Andy suggested that perhaps they should take a break. Todd made a personal attack on Andy’s character, to which Andy responded by ending their discussion. This lost deal cost Todd’s company quite a lot of money, and he was later let go.