How to Deal with Difficult People

The issue of how to deal with difficult people can stump even the most skilled negotiators. Expert advice from the Program on Negotiation can help you find common ground with even the most difficult negotiators.

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how to deal with difficult people

We’ve all met them: people who prefer competition over collaboration, stonewalling over problem solving, tough talk over active listening. Think of the boss who refuses to allow you time off to help an ailing relative, or the potential customer armed with a “nonnegotiable” proposal.

When considering how to deal with difficult people, we tend to write them off as irrational and avoid difficult conversations with them. Yet few people are truly irrational. Rather, they likely have motivations that we have trouble identifying. When confronted with difficult people (and those who just seem difficult), spend some time exploring the possible motivations behind their obstinance. Below, we describe how to deal with difficult people—specifically, three types of them—in negotiation.


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1. The Accidental Hard Bargainer

Suppose you’d like to take a week off work to care for an ailing relative, but your supervisor says he can’t grant the time off because the department is in the middle of its busy season. You offer to work as much as you can during the trip, but the supervisor’s answer is a flat no.

In this situation, your manager is taking a win-lose approach to the negotiation. Instead of brainstorming possible solutions that could meet both parties’ interests, he assumes that your interests are incompatible with those of the company.

You might help your boss move beyond a win-lose mindset by saying, “I’m sure there’s a solution that meets our shared interest of performing well during this busy time while also allowing me to take care of my family. If you have time to meet this afternoon, I’ll be ready with a few ideas.” Suggesting a break allows you to brainstorm options, such as taking a shorter trip than planned and working overtime before and after the trip. With any luck, your boss should be open to treating the request as a negotiation rather than a unilateral decision.

2. The Reluctant Hard Bargainer

Sometimes a person’s difficult stance can be chalked up to constraints or interests of which you are unaware, write Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman in their book Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond (Bantam, 2007).

Take the case of a potential customer who hands you a long “nonnegotiable” draft agreement. Trying to explain that negotiation is standard industry practice or touting your company’s superior track record is unlikely to get you very far. Instead, try probing the interests behind your counterpart’s demands. “I think it’s great that you have high standards,” you might say. “Tell me about what’s keeping you from negotiating, and maybe we can move on from there.”

She should then be willing to open up about the motivations behind her demands. Suppose she explains that her superiors have instructed her to reach an agreement within a week to meet upcoming production requirements. “I don’t have time for extensive back-and-forth,” she says. “I need to wrap this up and get someone on the job ASAP.”

“Your deadline shouldn’t be a problem,” you assure her. “Let’s try to make some headway this afternoon. If you don’t feel we’ve accomplished enough, you can explore other options.” Your responsiveness could increase your appeal as a long-term business partner in addition to opening up a true negotiation.

Other hidden constraints your counterpart could be facing include advice from lawyers, a tight budget, lack of authority, and commitments to other parties, write Bazerman and Malhotra. Show that you care about helping your counterpart negotiate within these constraints—or, better yet, help overcome them.

3. The Intentional Hard Bargainer

When dealing with difficult people, we sometimes find that they believe hard bargaining is the most effective strategy. They may attempt to manipulate you by using displays of anger, hurt feelings, or irrational behavior.

When considering how to handle difficult people, we need to tread carefully. If modeling good negotiating behavior doesn’t work, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind has several recommendations.

First, clarify that you can be pushed only so far. “If you can’t be more flexible, it might be time for you to explore other offers,” you might say.

Second, to get a reality check, include other members of your organization in the negotiation and encourage your counterpart to bring members of his as well.

Finally, summarize each negotiation session and send the memo to interested parties—to let your partner know that others are monitoring his actions and statements. If your partner still refuses to cooperate, it’s probably time to give up and move on.

What advice do you have on how to deal with difficult people?

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