Handling Difficult People: The Antisocial Negotiator

When it comes to handling difficult people, we typically are unprepared to deal with negotiators with serious personality disorders. Recent research reveals what to expect and how to cope.

By — on / Dealing with Difficult People

difficult people

Have you ever found yourself negotiating with someone who seemed entirely ruthless and lacking in empathy? From time to time, we may end up in the deeply unsettling position of handling difficult people who appear to have no concern for us or our outcomes.

People who are antisocial, lack empathy, and habitually engage in impulsive, manipulative, and even cruel behavior are believed to make up just 1% of the general population. (Psychologists refer to such people as psychopaths. While the term is often associated with violent criminals, the vast majority of people who score high on psychopathy do not engage in violent or criminal behavior.) Yet some experts have argued that people with such antisocial personalities could be more prevalent in the business world than in other fields.

“Without the inhibiting effect of a conscience,” writes Middlesex University Business School professor Clive Roland Boddy in the journal Management Decision, such people are able to “ruthlessly charm, lie, cajole and manipulate their way up an organizational hierarchy in pursuit of their main aims of power, wealth and status and at the expense of anyone who gets in their way.” Furthermore, people with such personalities often are driven by the desire for control, dominance, and prestige—qualities that the business world tends to value and reward, notes University of California at Davis professor Robert Emmons.

Until now, little has been known about how people with such personality traits, or with the other two so-called “dark personalities,” Machiavellianism and narcissism, negotiate. (People scoring high on Machiavellianism are ruthlessly concerned with personal gain. Those scoring high on narcissism tend to be self-absorbed and view themselves as better than others.) But recent articles in the journal Personality and Individual Differences reached some preliminary conclusions about how such individuals negotiate. Whether you find yourself dealing with difficult employees or dealing with difficult customers, the findings could provide useful defensive advice.

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 A Selfish Orientation

People with ruthless, antisocial personalities may perform better at some types of negotiation and worse at others, Leanne ten Brinke of the University of California, Berkeley, and her University of British Columbia coauthors Pamela J. Black, Stephen Porter, and Dana R. Carney found in a 2015 study.

The researchers had pairs of undergraduate students engage in a negotiation simulation involving the sale of a family business where they could both claim and jointly create value. Two months later, as part of a class assignment, the students completed an online survey that assessed their dark-triad personality traits.

Those who scored high on psychopathy (but not Machiavellianism or narcissism) claimed more value in their negotiations than those who scored lower on the trait. However, those with psychopathic personality traits were less effective than others at creating value. These results canceled each other out: those with psychopathic traits performed similarly to the other negotiators overall.

Thus, individuals with ruthless, antisocial personalities appear to behave as selfishly at the bargaining table as we might expect. Their competitive orientation could become an impediment over the long term if it prevents trusting, reciprocal relationships from developing. When handling difficult people, effective negotiation and conflict-resolving strategies can include highlighting what they personally stand to gain from behaving more collaboratively.

 An Online Disadvantage

In another study, University of British Columbia researchers Lisa Crossley, Michael Woodworth, Pamela J. Black, and Robert Hare looked at whether people who score high on psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism perform better when negotiating face to face or online. The team assessed participants’ personalities and then had them engage in a hypothetical negotiation over concert tickets, either in person or using a computer chat feature. The negotiation was purely competitive, with no opportunities to create value.

The results showed that those scoring high on the dark personality traits performed significantly better when negotiating face to face than when negotiating online. Notably, negotiators doing business online lack the rich verbal and nonverbal cues—from gestures to tone of voice to eye contact—that can help them influence their counterparts. Such cues may be particularly crucial to those scoring high on the dark personality traits, since they rely heavily on their ability to charm, manipulate, and intimidate others.

When it comes to handling difficult people, you might reduce your odds of being manipulated or intimidated by them by negotiating online, particularly in competitive situations.

A final note: Negotiators often err in assuming that their counterparts are irrational. More often than not, the other party is simply facing constraints or stresses that are causing him to seem irrational. Before playing armchair psychologist, ask questions aimed at determining whether some unseen pressure could explain his behavior.

 What negotiation advice do you have based on your own experiences handling difficult people?


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