Dealing with Difficult People – Even When You Don’t Want To

Dealing with difficult people is one of the most unpleasant challenges a negotiator can face. Here’s what to do when a demanding negotiating partner stands in the way of your goals.

By — on / Dealing with Difficult People

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? We often have strong incentives to negotiate with those we find obstinate, unpredictable, abrasive, or untrustworthy. When we avoid dealing with difficult people, we risk missing out on important opportunities. But if we do negotiate with them, there’s the risk of ending up worse off than when we started.

The following advice on how to deal with difficult people can induce more collaborative and trustworthy behavior from even the most challenging negotiators.

Dealing with Difficult People: Question Your Assumptions

When dealing with difficult people, we tend to assume they’re behaving irrationally. That’s an understandable conclusion when someone categorically refuses to cooperate, issues threats, or acts erratically. But rather than taking such behavior at face value, try to identify its underlying motivations, recommends Lawrence Susskind in his book Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiations.

Suppose you’re a salesperson who is negotiating a contract renewal with a longtime partner. Your usual negotiating counterpart has been replaced by Drew, a hard bargainer who resists your efforts to discuss anything other than price.

When dealing with difficult customers, think about possible constraints they might be facing, recommends Susskind. Maybe Drew’s boss thought he wasn’t tough enough on price during a recent negotiation. Maybe Drew’s company is struggling, and Drew could lose his job if he doesn’t get a better deal from you.

Test your theories by asking Drew questions: “Are you facing pressure to cut costs? Is there any way other than price cutting that I can help you address such concerns?” Drew might open up about constraints the company is facing. If so, you might be able to motivate collaboration by helping Drew prove to his boss that he’s working toward a better deal for the company, such as by documenting your discussions and sharing drafts with both sides.

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Dealing with Difficult People: 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. The need to save face can be especially strong when a negotiator has taken a tough stance. In such cases, they are 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.

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

You could also try offering a choice between two or more options. “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.

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

Dealing with Difficult People: Call Their Bluff

Writing in the New York Times, Robert J. Moore, CEO of data-analysis firm RJMetrics, describes a tool that he and his salespeople sometimes use when dealing with difficult people: strip-lining. Named for a fishing technique in which you let your catch swim away briefly before reeling it in, strip-lining involves asking a counterpart point-blank if a problem they’ve identified with your offer will make it impossible for you to do 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 the company hadn’t invested the energy needed to assess the product’s worth. The salesperson then asked the prospect to commit to fully exploring 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 them 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, the parties can jointly decide whether a solution seems possible.

When you’re dealing with difficult people, strip-lining can help focus the discussion. But because it can end a negotiation in an instant, try it only if you have a good backup plan.

What other negotiation strategies and tactics have you found to be effective when dealing with difficult people?

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