How to Break Through Barriers in Negotiation When Dealing with Difficult People

Overcoming barriers to communication at the bargaining table when dealing with difficult people

By on / Dealing with Difficult People

difficult people

In negotiation, we sometimes face the dreaded task of asking difficult people, intimidating opponents, and otherwise daunting counterparts for a big favor. How can we close the deal when we can barely summon up the courage to talk to the person in the first place?

In his book Influence: Science and Practice (Pearson, 2009), persuasion expert Robert Cialdini presents numerous techniques that can help us get what we want, even when the request seems outrageous or our target appears resistant. One trusted tactic from the sales world for dealing with difficult people—or seemingly difficult people to approach—is the foot-in-the-door technique, which involves using a small request to gain eventual compliance with a larger one.


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.


In an interview with National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” comedian and TV star Amy Poehler gave two textbook examples of how she’s used the foot-in-the-door technique to reach her goal of winning big laughs.

First, Poehler described a scene that she largely ad-libbed with Vice President Joe Biden during his guest appearance on her show “Parks and Recreation.” “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross expressed surprise that the White House hadn’t tried to control the scene. Poehler said she had sent a written scene to Washington for review without mentioning that she might wing it in person. She was happy with the spontaneous nature of the scene (and with Biden as an improv partner), and she didn’t get into any trouble with the White House.

“I’ve learned that it’s not always smart to ask before you do something,” Poehler explained.

Next, she shared an anecdote about hosting the Golden Globes in 2013, a year when she was nominated for a Best Actress award. Her plan was to try to sit on actor George Clooney’s lap when her name was being announced and, if she won, kiss him as if he were her husband.

She told Gross, “I knew from my years of working both sides of being on camera and behind the camera that it was better to ask George Clooney’s people, ‘Would you mind if Amy sat next to George when her name was announced?’ And of course”—because the request was innocuous—“they would say ‘No,’” that they didn’t mind. “It’s just too much to be like, ‘Can she sit on his lap?’” Poehler said.

Having secured permission from Clooney’s people to pull up a chair, Poehler said she approached his table at the appointed time and asked him point-blank if she could sit on his lap. “And he was like, sure,” she said, laughing. Though Poehler didn’t win the award (or a kiss), the moment got a big laugh.

Poehler’s anecdotes demonstrate not only the role of chutzpah in comedy, but also the value of preceding large requests with small ones in negotiation.

Why is the Foot-in-the-Door Technique so Successful for Dealing with Difficult People?

Because human beings have an innate motivation to appear consistent, according to Cialdini. The desire to behave consistently—rather than erratically—is so powerful that, research shows, it even drives us to do things that fall outside our comfort zone (for more information on breaking boundaries in negotiations, see also Integrative Negotiations, Value Creation, and Creativity at the Bargaining Table).

When we convince someone to make a small commitment, and then follow up with a larger request, we activate their desire to behave consistently. That’s why salespeople often first pitch an inexpensive product before trying to sell a pricey one. And when you’re dealing with a particularly difficult person, the tactic may trigger a previously undetected desire to behave consistently in them.

If the foot-in-the-door technique isn’t enough to win over a difficult or formidable negotiating partner, Poehler offered a bonus piece of negotiating advice from her experiences with Biden and Clooney: Make big requests face to face, rather than in writing or on the phone. “It’s a little harder to say no in person,” she said on “Fresh Air.” “Any door-to-door knife salesman will tell you that.”

Related Article: How Snap Judgments Lead Negotiators Astray – How impulsive decision making can derail even the best negotiation strategies.

Trust and Honesty in Negotiations: How to Deal with Dishonest Negotiators – Negotiation tactics for dealing with a dishonest counterpart at the bargaining table.

How to Enhance Your Negotiated Agreement – Integrative negotiation strategies for creating value in an existing agreement.

Consensus and Negotiated Agreements – The importance of consensus and buy-in from stakeholders that will implement or be affected by a negotiated agreement.


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.


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