Dealing with difficult people— even when you don’t want to

What to do when an erratic negotiating partner stands in the way of your goals.

By on / Dealing with Difficult People

In your negotiations, have you ever faced a truly difficult negotiator—someone whose behavior seems designed to provoke, thwart, and annoy you beyond all measure?

For some Western leaders these days, the negotiator who best fits that description might be Russian president Vladimir Putin. Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian leader has seemed intent on defying expectations and needling his critics. On the eve of a NATO summit on Russian aggression, for example, Putin stole American president Barack Obama’s thunder by announcing a seven-point peace plan for Ukraine, which he had scrawled on the back of a napkin during a plane trip. Russia then failed to follow through on the plan.

As Putin traveled to an Asia-Europe summit in October, speculation grew that he might make a significant compromise in the Ukraine crisis. But during a stop in Serbia, he attended a Cold War–style military parade, questioned Kosovo’s sovereignty, and suggested that Obama was trying to blackmail him. Putin next arrived hours late, at 11 p.m., for a private meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Milan, the New York Times reports, then visited Italy’s disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for some late-night conversation and truffles. Putin left at 4 a.m., just a few hours before an important breakfast meeting with European leaders, including Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. After refusing to make significant concessions at the meeting, Putin told an off-color joke at a press conference that afternoon.

In an ideal world, we would always get to choose our negotiating partners. They would be collaborative, creative, straightforward, and sensitive to our needs. They would view open communication as a virtue and power plays as counterproductive.

Of course, such a world is a fantasy. Though we sometimes have the luxury of deciding with whom to do business, there are also times when we have strong incentives to negotiate with someone we find to be obstinate, unpredictable, abrasive, untrustworthy, or all of the above. If we choose not to negotiate with such people, we could miss out on important business opportunities or a chance to end a lingering conflict. If we do choose to negotiate with them, we could end up worse off than when we started.
Fortunately, there are strategies we can employ to induce more collaborative and trustworthy behavior from even the most difficult negotiators. In this article, we recommend three of them.

1. Question your assumptions.
When dealing with a difficult negotiating partner, we tend to assume that she is behaving irrationally. That’s an understandable conclusion when someone categorically refuses to cooperate, issues threats, or acts erratically. In fact, however, her behavior may be quite rational when viewed from another perspective.

Instead of taking the other party at face value, try to identify the motivations underlying her actions, recommends Lawrence Susskind in his book Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiations (PublicAffairs, 2014).

Returning to Putin, his recent behavior on the international stage should seem more rational to Western observers when we consider that it plays well at home. Buoyed by the state-run media, Putin is enjoying widespread approval in Russia for his Ukraine policies and other provocative acts. “He stands for the Russian resurgence,” Russia expert Matthew Rojansky of the Kennan Institute told the New York Times. Rather than expecting Putin “to be cowed or shamed or humbled,” Western leaders should recognize that Putin is admired and rewarded at home for carrying on the tradition of powerful Russian leaders such as Peter the Great, says Rojansky. In this light, Putin’s behavior can be seen as perfectly rational, if not to the liking
of many outside Russia.

Now suppose that you are a salesperson who is negotiating a contract renewal with a longtime partner. Your usual negotiating counterpart has been replaced by Allison, a hard bargainer who talks down to you and resists your efforts to discuss anything other than price.

Rather than assuming that Allison is just not a nice person, think about possible constraints she might be facing, recommends Susskind. Maybe her bosses accused her of not being tough enough on price during a recent negotiation. Maybe her company is struggling, and she could lose her job if she doesn’t get a better deal from you. Or perhaps she is offended by something you said at the start of the negotiation.

You can test your theories about the motives behind your counterpart’s behavior by asking her questions. “Are you facing pressure to cut costs?” you might ask Allison. “Is there any way, other than price cutting, that I can help you address such concerns?” She may open up about constraints she’s facing. If so, you might be able to motivate collaborative problem solving by thinking of ways to help her prove to her bosses that she’s working toward a better deal for her company, such as documenting your discussions and sharing drafts with both sides.

2. Look for face-saving opportunities.
The desire to save face—to view ourselves positively and project a positive image to others—is a major concern for negotiators. It can be just as important to us as the substance of our deals.

As we’ve suggested, a negotiator’s seemingly irrational behavior is often rooted in a desire to please her colleagues or constituents. The need to save face can be especially strong when a negotiator has taken a tough stance that brings talks to
an impasse. In such cases, she is likely to view retreat as a sign of weakness.

One effective face-saving technique is to “build them a golden bridge”—that is, “to reframe a retreat from their position as an advance toward a better solution,” writes William Ury in Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People (Bantam Books, 1991).

You might build a golden bridge by asking for your counterpart’s ideas and then adding to them rather than trying to sell him on your ideas. This strategy helps him gain ownership of an agreement and save face.

You could also try offering the other party a choice between two or more options. Returning to the sales example, you might bridge the difference between your offered price and the price Allison is demanding by letting her choose from three options: (1) a third-party appraiser will decide on the price, (2) you will pay the difference with assets other than cash, or (3) you will spread out the payments over time. “Once they select an alternative,” explains Ury in Getting Past No, “it becomes their idea.” This strategy also gives difficult negotiators room to criticize some of your ideas while still coming to agreement.

Coping with difficult negotiators

Here are four more guidelines from Lawrence Susskind to help you encourage more rational negotiating behavior from a counterpart:

  1. Avoid making unilateral concessions, which will only encourage further unreasonable demands.
  2. Test your interpretation of events by asking others from your organization to join the negotiation, and encourage your counterpart to do the same.
  3. To make the other side more accountable for her behavior, write up briefings from your bargaining sessions and distribute them to interested parties on both sides.
  4. Make multiple offers that meet both sides’ interests and put them in writing.

Changing the players can also help. You might suggest turning the negotiation over to higher-ups in your organizations, a move that would release your counterpart from feeling personally responsible for backing down. Third-party mediation can also help difficult negotiators save face and retreat from their entrenched positions.

Western leaders currently are confronted with the challenge of trying to persuade Putin to back down from the Ukraine crisis. But the West’s monolithic opposition to his Ukraine policy has created a symbolic, Cold War–style divide that makes it tough for Putin to de-escalate tensions while saving face at home. In the past, German chancellor Angela Merkel has been able to build bridges with Putin, but that relationship has grown frosty.

Sometimes you can build a golden bridge by agreeing to put a positive public spin on a behind-the-scenes concession. That’s what U.S. president John F. Kennedy and his advisers did to persuade Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw missiles from Cuba in October 1962. Kennedy offered Khrushchev his personal guarantee that the United States would not invade Cuba. This promise was easy to make, notes Ury, because Kennedy had no intention of invading Cuba. But it gave his Soviet counterpart a much-needed justification for withdrawing the missiles; Khrushchev was able to announce that he had succeeded in protecting the newly communist Cuba from American attack.

3. Name the game.
What if the techniques we’ve described have failed, and you still aren’t any closer to agreement with a difficult counterpart? You aren’t out of options yet.

You might try calling attention to the person’s behavior by naming it, suggests Simmons School of Management professor emerita Deborah M. Kolb. Suppose that Allison, the difficult counterpart in your sales renegotiation, threatens to take her business elsewhere if you don’t lower your price. “I don’t think this type of threat is the answer to our impasse,” you might say. “Shopping around is only going to create more work for you, and you’re unlikely to find a better deal.” Signaling that you recognize the move as a power play could motivate the other party to back down.

In general, responding to threats and other hardball tactics in kind only escalates tensions and deepens impasse. But if you have a strong BATNA—best alternative to a negotiated agreement— then a carefully conceived threat may be a decent option. Just be sure to tie the threat closely to the issues at hand and be prepared to follow through on it. “If you continue to talk about seeking other partners, then it may be time for us to explore other options as well,” you might say.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Robert J. Moore, the CEO of RJMetrics, a data-analysis firm, describes a similar tool that he and his salespeople sometimes use in tough negotiations: strip-lining. Strip-lining, which is named for a fishing technique in which you let your catch swim away briefly before reeling it in, involves asking a counterpart point-blank if a problem that she’s identified with your offer will make it impossible for you to work out a deal.

Here’s an example. One of Moore’s salespeople was trying to convince a prospect to take a second look at a product that had been previously rejected. The salesperson had little leverage to negotiate new deal terms, so he strip-lined: “To be honest, if [the product] wasn’t a fit back then, it probably isn’t going to be a fit now. What makes you think this time will be any different?”

The prospect admitted that the company hadn’t invested the energy needed to assess the product’s worth. The salesperson then asked the prospect to commit to devoting the energy needed to fully explore the product, or else come back when he had more time. The prospect made the commitment, and the company quickly came on board.

Strip-lining calls a negotiator’s bluff by giving him an opportunity to end the negotiation. Often, writes Moore, the other party will concede that the issue at stake is not make-or-break, and the negotiation will continue. If the issue is a potential dealbreaker, then the parties can jointly decide whether a solution seems possible.

Because strip-lining can end a negotiation in an instant, you should try it only if you have a good backup plan. However, it can help focus the discussion when you are overwhelmed with demands from a difficult negotiator.

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