Adapted from “Taming Hard Bargainers,” by Robert C. Bordone (professor, Harvard Law School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Suppose you’re about to face off with an “old school” negotiator whose reputation for hard bargaining precedes him. You know you’re supposed to adopt a collaborative approach for the best results, but what about when the other side is being difficult? You don’t want to get taken to the cleaners.
There are steps you can take to transform a potential zero-sum competition of wills into an interaction that is aligned toward problem solving—even with the hardest bargainer.
First, beware the common tendency to equate being collaborative with being nice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being nice, but niceness is not the point of mutual-gains negotiation. Rather, a collaborative approach is more of a bargaining stance than a personality style. Some negotiators view their counterparts as competitors with whom they must spar. Others jointly identify the issues up for discussion and work together to address them. It’s possible to be nice or less than nice when you’re taking either approach.
Second, examine your assumptions about the hard bargaining you expect to face. Consider that the other party may have a policy of acting difficult, or he may be unaware of the damage he’s doing. Regardless, when you try to collaborate with him, you may feel you’re stuck between either conceding or reverting to an old-school game of haggling. In most cases, this perceived either-or choice is a false one.
A third effective antidote to troublesome behavior is active listening. Active listening doesn’t mean waiting patiently for the other side to end a rant or nodding and saying, “I understand, but… ”. Instead, active listening entails proactively interrupting the other party to paraphrase what he has said, asking follow-up questions to better understand confusing assertions, and acknowledging the highly charged emotions that may lurk below the surface. When done well, active listening can tame the hardest bargainer—which is why it’s a central component of hostage- and crisis-negotiation training.