Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


difficult conversations

What are Difficult Conversations in Negotiation?

From the boardroom to the factory floor, your ability 
to manage difficult conversations is key to your effectiveness.

Whether dealing with a challenging customer, a difficult supplier, an unhappy employee, an unreasonable official, or a demanding boss, we all have difficult conversations we anticipate with dread.

Learning how to have those difficult conversations can help you respond to emotions (your and others’), foster successful relationships, bridge the gulf of real differences in what people believe and feel, and keep your team and your organization on target.

One example can be in the case of salary negotiations. Intimidating as it may be, it’s one of the most important difficult conversations to have at the beginning of your career.

It’s also one area where negotiators tend to assume that any gains made come at the expense of the other party, and vice versa. Yet when we start looking at “salary negotiations” as “job negotiations,” we realize this doesn’t have to be the case. When negotiating salary, what tradeoffs could you make to get a higher offer? Maybe you could offer to take on added responsibilities, make tradeoffs on benefits, or look for other ways to add value to the employer.

In more challenging situations, such as engaging in difficult conversations and working with difficult people, it’s important to find ways to avoid being caught up in their competitive trap.

How can you avoid an escalatory spiral and take the high road when having difficult conversations and managing difficult people? In his classic negotiation text Getting Past No: Negotiating In Difficult Situations, William Ury advises us to break the cycle of reaction and counter-reaction in negotiation by “going to the balcony”—that is, by imagining we are stepping back from the stage to the balcony.

In doing so, we can step back, gather our wits, and look at the situation objectively. This sense of psychological distance can give us the clarity we need to identify the motives behind unfair tactics and avoid responding in kind.

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

The following items are tagged difficult conversations:

Asynchronous Learning: Negotiation Exercises to Keep Students Engaged Outside the Classroom

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

Asynchronous role-play simulations teach valuable negotiation skills outside of a typical class format. Asynchronous learning is a term used to describe education, instruction, or learning that does not occur in the same time or place. Asynchronous learning uses resources that facilitate knowledge sharing outside the constraints of time and place among a group of people. Using … Read More

Semester Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most

Posted by & filed under PON Semester Programs, PON Seminars.

Difficult Conversations are an important part of the human experience – at times uncomfortable or painful, however, it is possible to learn how to manage a difficult conversation in a constructive way. From business partners and relationships with customers, clients, supplier and colleagues, to dynamics with family, friends, and members of our communities, the … Read More

The Best New Simulations

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

Looking to update your curriculum with innovative new simulations? Check out these new simulations from the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC). Discord at the Daily Herald – New Simulation This two-party, three-hour, multi-issue negotiation is between the co-owners of the Daily Herald newspaper over how to resolve ongoing management issues and implement structural reforms in the face … Read The Best New Simulations

Harvard Negotiation Master Class: Advanced Strategies for Experienced Negotiators – November 13-15, 2023

Posted by & filed under Harvard Negotiation Master Class.

Strictly limited to 60 participants who have completed a prior course in negotiation, this first-of-its-kind program offers unprecedented access to experts from Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Kennedy School—all of whom are committed to delivering a transformational learning experience. … Read More

New Simulation: Negotiating a Management Crisis

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

How do you negotiate an internal management conflict in the face of looming crisis and a deep loss of trust? In Discord at the Daily Herald, a new simulation from the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC), the co-owners of the Daily Herald must grapple with these issues or face the complete dissolution of their partnership … Read New Simulation: Negotiating a Management Crisis

Negotiation Essentials Online – November 29-30, 2023

Posted by & filed under Negotiation Essentials Online.

Designed for maximum impact, this program will feature: interactive Zoom sessions led by a PON instructor; engaging and educational prerecorded videos featuring seven world-class PON faculty members from across Harvard, MIT, and Tufts; case studies based on real-world experience; and opportunities to negotiate and engage in discussion with your fellow participants. … Read More

Negotiation Workshop: Improving Your Negotiating Effectiveness

Posted by & filed under Harvard Negotiation Institute, Harvard Negotiation Institute (Five-Day Programs).

Course Dates: This course is closed Too many negotiators leave value on the table. They painfully divide a small pie after a costly battle while failing to capture offsetting opportunities for joint gain, or win the battle, but at the cost to relationships and reputation that limit long-term value. Reliably negotiating optimal outcomes requires a keen … Read More

Salary Negotiation: How to Ask for a Higher Salary

Posted by & filed under Salary Negotiations.

For a new employee, salary negotiation skills can be the most important and the most intimidating, but the most important, of difficult conversations to have at the beginning of your career. A new employee, successfully negotiating a salary offer up by $5,000 could make a huge difference over the course of her career. … Read More

Negotiating Difficult Conversations: Dealing with Tough Topics Productively

Posted by & filed under Harvard Negotiation Institute, Harvard Negotiation Institute (Five-Day Programs).

Course Dates: This course is closed When negotiations become difficult, emotions often escalate and talks break down. To overcome barriers and turn negotiations from difficult to collaborative, from breakdown to breakthrough, you must learn to understand the inter- and intra-personal dynamics at play. In this program, you will examine how your own assumptions and behaviors can … Read More

Case Study of Conflict Management: To Resolve Disputes and Manage Conflicts, Assume a Neutral 3rd Party Role

Posted by & filed under Conflict Resolution.

In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Putnam, 2000), authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen tell us how to engage in the conversations in our professional or personal lives that make us uncomfortable by examining a case study of conflict management. Tough, honest conversations are critical for managers, … Read More

New Great Negotiator Case and Video: Christiana Figueres, former UNFCCC Executive Secretary

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

The Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School periodically presents the Great Negotiator Award to an individual whose lifetime achievements in the field of negotiation and dispute resolution have had a significant and lasting impact. In 2022, PON selected Christiana Figueres as the recipient of its Great Negotiator Award for her efforts to build … Read More

Interpersonal Conflict Resolution: Beyond Conflict Avoidance

Posted by & filed under Conflict Resolution.

To hear some tell it, we are experiencing an epidemic of conflict avoidance, finding new ways to walk away from conflict rather than engaging in interpersonal conflict resolution. Ghosting, for example—ending a relationship by disappearing—has become common. Numerous tech companies are being criticized for laying off people via email rather than in person. Many people … Read More

Managing Emotions in Negotiation: Teaching Students to Turn Emotions into an Opportunity for Mutual Gain

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

How do you move from an emotionally charged moment in a negotiation to a mutually beneficial agreement? In negotiations of all types, whether buying a house or negotiating a company acquisition, emotions naturally manifest. Left unaddressed, emotions can derail a negotiation and make agreement seem impossible. When emotions are managed properly, however, they can allow the … Read More

Dear Negotiation Coach: Having Difficult Conversations Online

Posted by & filed under Conflict Resolution.

Engaging in difficult conversations online about politics and other hot-button issues often spiral quickly into conflict, leaving us feeling misunderstood, angry, and sometimes even ashamed of our own behavior. We spoke to Harvard Law School lecturer Sheila Heen—coauthor of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking, 2014) and Difficult … Read More

Negotiating Strategies for Navigating Sensitive Topics

Posted by & filed under Negotiation Skills.

When devising negotiating strategies, some topics seem off-limits: difficult to bring up and perhaps impossible to resolve. Consider the following anecdotes: – In the process of negotiating an acquisition that would include key personnel, members of the buyer’s team are concerned about rumors that a top executive from the target firm has a serious drinking problem … Read More

How to Have Difficult Conversations During the Holidays and Beyond

Posted by & filed under Dealing with Difficult People.

In the United States and many other places, people seem more divided than ever before. Disagreement on political issues is common, but often we can’t even seem to agree on basic facts. As families come together during the winter holidays or simply post-quarantine, many wonder how to have difficult conversations regarding hot-button issues while preserving … Read More

Relationship-Building in Negotiation

Posted by & filed under Business Negotiations.

Forging close bonds typically helps negotiators reach better deals, work together effectively over time, and manage conflict—yet negotiators often rush through the process of relationship-building in negotiation. Here’s advice on how to approach this important aspect of negotiation more methodically. Overcome Partisan Perceptions An unconscious bias often gets in the way of relationship-building in negotiation: partisan perceptions, or … Read Relationship-Building in Negotiation

The Value of Using Scorable Simulations in Negotiation Training

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

At a Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC) faculty pedagogy seminar, members of the PON faculty and negotiation community gathered to hear Gordon Kaufman (MIT Morris A. Adelman Professor of Management, Emeritus) speak about how he uses quantifiable data to plot student-learning trajectories. The conversation focused on the ongoing debate within the negotiation pedagogy community regarding the way … Read More

New Simulation: Having Difficult Conversations Over Email

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

Negotiating over email has its own unique challenges and opportunities. For example, people often assume that the emails they have sent are read immediately and so experience anxiety when there isn’t a prompt response, failing to account for reasonable delays. On the other hand, email negotiations also provide a permanent record of what is discussed … Read More

Plan Your Curriculum for Next Semester

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

How do we utilize lessons learned from teaching online when returning to the classroom and planning a curriculum? After more than a year of remote learning, students and teachers alike are eager to return to classrooms in the fall. During the pandemic, however, many instructors made significant investments in online teaching resources, lesson plans, and … Read Plan Your Curriculum for Next Semester

Lessons Learned from Teaching Online: Pedagogy in a Pandemic

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

The exercises and videos developed for teaching online can also help improve in-person courses. As teachers and trainers around the world are working to transition their courses online and wondering about how their approach to teaching will be altered moving forward, the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC) asked some of our experienced online teachers to share … Read More

Leveraging BATNA at the Dinner Table: Negotiate Your Way to Holiday Cheer

Posted by & filed under Negotiation Skills.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so they say. As we look ahead to winter vacation and seemingly endless days of family celebrations, many feel a sense of dread, anticipating tensions and conflict as drearily predictable as overcooked turkey and practical gifts. Even those who look forward to family get-togethers often end … Read More

Conflict Resolution in the Family

Posted by & filed under Conflict Resolution.

In Lessons in Domestic Diplomacy, the New York Times’ Bruce Feiler, drawing on family conflict resolution negotiation examples in his past, offers a case study of conflict management by focusing on disputes in the home, asking, “how do we break out of negative patterns of conduct and proactively approach problems encountered in our everyday lives?” … Read Conflict Resolution in the Family

Coping with Difficult Coworkers

Posted by & filed under Dealing with Difficult People.

At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves coping with difficult coworkers. We might experience flare-ups over workload, funding, or personality issues, to name just a few sources of workplace conflict. The experience of coping with difficult coworkers can be extremely stressful. The following conflict negotiation skills can help you address this … Read Coping with Difficult Coworkers

How to Deal with Difficult People

Posted by & filed under Dealing 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 … Read How to Deal with Difficult People

Hong Kong Lawyer Benny Tai Inspired by Harvard Negotiation Project Authors

Posted by & filed under Teaching Negotiation.

The Harvard Negotiation Project was recently mentioned in the Wall Street Journal by David Feith in his interview with Benny Tai, “China’s New Freedom Fighters.” Benny Tai, a 49 year old lawyer who has been branded an “enemy of the state,” founded Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a group that promotes civil disobedience in order … Read More

Think Like a Mediator

Posted by & filed under Mediation.

To set the stage for a productive discussion, open a difficult conversation with the Third Story, advise the authors of Difficult Conversations. The Third Story is one an impartial observer, such as a mediator, would tell; it’s a version of events both sides can agree on. “The key is learning to describe the gap – … Read Think Like a Mediator

Former Clearinghouse Customers Speak!

Posted by & filed under Daily, Negotiation Skills, Pedagogy at PON.

In an effort to understand more about how the former PON Clearinghouse does and doesn’t meet its customers’ needs, we interviewed a number of long-time Clearinghouse clients. We asked what teaching materials they found most valuable and for what reasons. We also asked how they found out about the former Clearinghouse and what additional teaching and … Read Former Clearinghouse Customers Speak!

Opening students up to negotiation

Posted by & filed under Negotiation Skills.

Working It Out is a 27-page handbook designed to introduce high school students to problem-solving, interest-based negotiation. Written by Getting to YES co-author Roger Fisher and Difficult Conversations co-author Douglas Stone, Working It Out presents core concepts from both books in a clear, simple format with plenty of age-appropriate examples from family, school, workplace and … Read Opening students up to negotiation

Harvard Negotiation Institute Begins!

Posted by & filed under Daily.

On the morning of June 8, 2009, hundreds of participants from around the world began their week-long intensive Basic Negotiation Workshop and Mediation Workshop.  Participants will engage with instructors Bruce Patton and Frank Sander for five days of interactive study.  There are still seats available in our 2-Day Intensive  Basic Negotiation course, which begins Thursday, … Read Harvard Negotiation Institute Begins!