Negotiation Tactics for Bargaining with Difficult People: Comcast’s Customer Service

Bargaining tactics for dealing with difficult situations in negotiation and business relationships

By on / Dealing with Difficult People

In our lives as business negotiators, there inevitably will be times when we feel angry, frustrated, and mistreated.

At such times we face a choice between letting our negative feelings show, concealing them, or trying to channel them into positive change. Ample negotiation research has found that negotiators who show their anger tend to make greater gains than negotiators who seem happy or more neutral—as long as their anger seems genuine rather than contrived.


Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

But as we all know, a host of contextual factors affect how others will react to our emotional displays in negotiation, including protocol, power, and our past behavior. And those contextual factors can mean that otherwise good advice doesn’t always apply.

Comcast and Merging with Time Warner – Emotions in Negotiation

Take the case of Comcast’s recent reaction to critics of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.

As reflected in a filing it submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in September in defense of the merger, Comcast conveyed the emotion typical of an abruptly awakened giant or grizzly bear: something akin to rage.

In the filing, the company lashed out at competitors and partners alike, including Netflix, Discovery, and Dish.

Comcast claimed that some of its enemies had engaged in “extortion” by seeking an alleged $5 billion in concessions from the cable giant in exchange supporting the merger, writes David Carr in the New York Times. When Comcast refused to cave, the companies began lobbying against the merger, arguing that giving Comcast control over much of the broadband in the United States would be anti-competitive.

Comcast’s FCC filing was brimming with “hot rhetoric,” according to Carr. The ferocious tone was all the more surprising given Comcast’s past mild-mannered public image. As Carr put it, the company has a “long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige” even as its critics sling mud.

That approach reportedly reflects the low-key approach of Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts.

In some negotiations, an unexpected display of anger like Comcast’s might cause frightened counterparts to open their wallets and back away.

But, of course, context is key.

Months ago, the merger with Time Warner appeared to be a foregone conclusion, thanks in part to Comcast’s political clout in Washington. Thus, the fact that Comcast now seems riled by its critics has them “overjoyed,” writes Carr, as it suggests that Comcast recognizes that their counter-lobbying is being taken seriously by the FCC. With its filing, Comcast may have been aiming to set the record straight and take a bold stance, but instead it came off as “defensive and frantic,” according to Carr.

The business negotiation lesson?

The situation offers a lesson for business negotiators.

Though it’s true that displays of anger can intimidate counterparts into making concessions, that’s not always the case. When a highly competitive negotiation appears to be shifting in a counterpart’s direction, your anger could cheer them into believing you’re the one who’s frightened and grasping at straws. In such cases, strong emotions can convey desperation rather than strength.

Notably, this type of power struggle is a sign that you’ve gotten bogged down in a win-lose negotiation where each side is trying to grab the biggest piece of the pie. Wise negotiators try to get beyond such competitions to look for both ways to benefit—and keep their smiles on their faces.

Related Dealing with Difficult People Article: Expanding the Pie: Integrative Bargaining Versus Distributive Bargaining


Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2014.

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