Dealing With a Stubborn Counterpart

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Stubborn or Irrational? How to Cope with a Difficult Negotiating Partner,” by Lawrence Susskind (professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Suppose you’re an experienced salesperson entering into negotiations for a contract renewal with a company you’ve successfully done business with for years. Recently, your counterpart at the other company was replaced by a new hire. You call Joe, the new guy, to set up your first meeting and immediately realize you’re in for some trouble.

“Here are my rules,” Joe says, cutting the pleasantries short. “First, we’ll meet at my office. Second, I’ll let you know what we will talk about and what we won’t. Third, I’ll tell you the price range we’ll be working in. And we won’t put anything in writing until we have a deal.”

“I’m fine with meeting at your place,” you say uneasily, putting off his other demands for now. “But we should probably include some of our production people and someone from your operations division. We’ve got to make sure we meet their interests as well.”

“No,” Joe says. “That’s not how I do it.”

“For years,” you continue, “your predecessor always brought along your head of operations. I think that’s why everything always went so smoothly. We need to talk about more than just price. We want to make sure that our components meet your company’s unique needs.”

“Let me worry about that,” Joe says.

You are completely taken aback. Joe seems impossible to deal with. One of the trickiest aspects of negotiation is figuring out how to deal with an individual who cannot be convinced by the merits of evidence or arguments. How can you put a stop to irrational behaviors and demands—those that don’t appear to contribute at all to the effectiveness of a negotiation? How can you get someone to be reasonable?

In this case, Joe may just be pushing to see what he can get away with. If you don’t push back, he’ll keep “claiming” even more. This strategy is not irrational, especially for someone who has used it successfully in the past.

In their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin Books, 1991), Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton advise you to treat your partner the way you’d like to be treated yourself. Negotiation theory suggests you focus on interests, not positions; separate inventing from committing; invest heavily in “What if?” questions; insist on objective criteria; and try to build nearly self-enforcing agreements.

This advice does not preclude making it clear that there are limits beyond which you will not be pushed. “If you can’t be more flexible, we’re done,” you might tell Joe. “No one is going to give you a better product and better service at a lower price. But if you want to look around, go ahead; then get back to me.”

If modeling effective behavior doesn’t cause your difficult partner to act reasonably, don’t despair. There are several other tactics you can try.

First, to test your interpretation of events, insist on bringing others from your organization into the negotiation, and press your partner to bring in colleagues as well. In addition, be sure to summarize what’s said in writing and distribute memos after each exchange. By doing so, you’ll put your difficult partner on notice that others will be aware of that he’s up to. Next, put forward multiple proposals that meet your interests very well and that seem to meet the other side’s interests at least reasonably well. Even if you don’t reach a deal, your offers will be on record. Finally, never make unilateral concessions just to appease your partner. You’ll only encourage more of the same unproductive claiming behavior.

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818