Coping in Difficult Negotiations

Last Updated Apr 20, 2007 6:58 PM EDT

However experienced you are at handling negotiations, you'll occasionally run into difficulties. The number of potential difficulties is legion, but the most common ones fall into two categories: difficult people and difficult situations.

Again, the range of possibilities is wide, but some general principles will emerge in each case.

What You Need To Know

I dread negotiating with one particular supplier as she is so abrasive. What can I do to change this?

People are difficult for several reasons. They may have unresolved issues in their personal life that affect their attitudes and commitment to the negotiation. They may lack empathy and make insensitive or inappropriate remarks, or they may simply be unskilled in negotiating and make mistakes. Whatever the cause, try not to over-react and make the situation worse.


What To Do

Decide Whether You Want to Save the Situation

You've had a long day and things aren't going well. Do you want to rescue what's left of the negotiation? If not, suggest postponing the negotiation to another day. If you do want to persevere, try the following approach.

Look at the diagram below. It shows two possible ways of behaving when working with others. When someone asks us for help, or appears to need it, the natural tendency of most people is to try to offer a solution. We generally produce one of the three kinds of behavior in the top half of the diagram:

  • we advise people what to do;
  • we tell them;
  • we offer to do something for them under certain conditions.

This is called "solution-centered behavior" because it focuses principally on finding an answer. Sometimes this works, but it is rather easy to produce a brilliant solution to what later turns out to be the wrong problem. And when this happens, it is, of course, your fault!


An alternative approach is to use "problem-centered behavior," which means going "below the line" shown in the diagram, and questioning the other person about how he or she understands the problem.

You can do this either by consulting ("What exactly is the problem?", "When did it occur?", "What might have caused it?" and so on) or reflecting ("I can see that you're very angry about this, what's causing it?", "What aspect of the problem is troubling you most?"). The key message here is to consult about facts, reflect on feelings (Source: Margerison). The purpose is to make sure that you both share a clear understanding of what the problem is. In fact, helping the other person to clarify his or her thinking about the problem often allows the answer to emerge as if by magic. The other party then feels as if they "own" the solution, so they feel committed to it and you may not need to use the solution-centered behavior at all. Even if the answer does not appear automatically, though, you can now direct or advise from a much better understanding of the issues.

Tap Into the Power of Questions

The key to the "below-the-line" approach is that it obliges you to ask questions, which is always a good idea if you have to deal with difficult people, as it enables you to control the conversation-if you ask a question, people will usually answer it. This approach avoids confrontation, and it may get you valuable information about the person or the negotiation.

Remember the Guidelines

  • When in doubt go "below the line": consult and reflect.
  • Ask good, useful, open questions: plan them carefully.
  • Ask for the other party's proposals or ideas-don't give yours first.
  • Ask for clarification of the other party's proposals rather than saying what is wrong with them.
  • Ask about their goals and objectives rather than telling them about yours.
  • Ask how you can help them.

Have a Backup Plan If All Else Fails

If the other person is still being "difficult" and hindering the negotiation, more drastic action is needed. Either he or she doesn't want the negotiation to succeed, or is unable to conduct the discussion properly at this time. In any case, you need to do something to move things along.

Acknowledge that there seems to be a problem and ask three key questions:

  • Does he or she want to continue the discussions?
  • Would it be better if you spoke with someone else? A more senior member of staff, for example?
  • Is there anything you can do that will help him or her feel more comfortable with the negotiation?

Deal With Difficult Situations

Not all negotiations take place face-to-face these days; in fact, most negotiations happen over the phone or by e-mail. Here we'll look at negotiating by phone. People sometimes opt for this to save time, but it's very much a second-best situation: avoid it as much as possible, except for simple negotiations.

For these straightforward discussions, telephone contact can have certain advantages:

  • it is relatively cheap and usually quite quick;
  • you can spread your papers out in front of you for easy reference-this is especially useful if you need to refer to price lists, discounts, and so on ;
  • you can use checklists to act as prompts;
  • you can take notes or make calculations as you wish;
  • the telephone forces you both to listen well;
  • decisions can be made promptly.

However, there are a number of general disadvantages for both parties, but particularly for the party that has not initiated the discussion. You need to take account of these if put in this situation. The main problems are:

  • you have little time to think;
  • you get no "feel" for the other person, because you can't see them, and you can't pick up on any nonverbal clues in their behavior;
  • the telephone is impersonal; it is difficult to use the "personal domain";
  • many standard negotiation tactics are less effective over the phone;
  • it is difficult to set and keep to an agenda;
  • people are more inclined to say "no" on the phone because they don't get that little extra reassurance that comes from face-to-face contact;

  • "what if...?" questions and searches for a "better deal" can be more difficult on the phone-there is a tendency to stick to the specified business;
  • it can be difficult to coordinate within your own organization;
  • there is a danger of distractions: visitors, noise, pending appointments, and so on;
  • many people feel pressured by time during a phone call;
  • silences are more threatening in a phone call (and in some countries, may lead to the connection being lost) ;
  • you feel as if you have to make decisions too quickly;
  • the line may be bad, disrupting the flow of the negotiation, and you don't know who else is listening;
  • if you forget something, it may be difficult to come back to the point or introduce it later: telephone calls tend to be "linear" (that is, you may have only one opportunity to say or raise something), whereas face-to-face conversations can go around in loops.

If you have to negotiate over the phone, arrange a time that will allow you to do some preparation beforehand. If someone "ambushes" you and you're caught off guard, ask if you can call them back in half an hour or so.

Have all the necessary paperwork close at hand. For example, if you're discussing the renewal of a contract, make sure you have a copy close by that you can refer to. Also have plenty of paper nearby that you can make notes on.

Make sure that you won't be disturbed. If you have an office, close the door. If you work in an open-plan office, see if you can book a meeting room elsewhere in the building so that you won't be distracted by other people's conversations around you.

Even though the other party can't see you, use the body language you would use if they were there in person, for example nod if you agree, move your hands as you speak. All of this will filter back in the tone of your voice.

Take a break and arrange to call the other person back if things are getting heated or you've reached a stalemate. Once agreement has been reached, follow up in writing as you would do if you'd conducted a face-to-face negotiation.


What To Avoid

You Battle On When It's Just Not Worth It

While everyone aims to tie up negotiations with the least amount of fuss and wasted time possible, some days it just won't work. On those days, it's important to recognize this, cut your losses, and rearrange for another time.

You Don't Get to the Bottom of Why Someone Is Being "Difficult"

Even though your patience may be stretched to its absolute limit, try to put yourself in the other party's shoes to find out why they are acting in the way that they are. Also ask questions that allow the other party to disclose their concerns and motivations-you may actually be able to help them, thus achieving that ideal win-win goal.


Where To Learn More

Web Sites:

The Negotiation Skills Company: http://www.negotiationskills.com/articles.html

Work911.com: http://www.work911.com/cgi-bin/links/jump.cgi?ID=3323

© A & C Black Publishers Ltd 2006


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What You Need To Know

I dread negotiating with one particular supplier as she is so abrasive. What can I do to change this?

People are difficult for several reasons. They may have unresolved issues in their personal life that affect their attitudes and commitment to the negotiation. They may lack empathy and make insensitive or inappropriate remarks, or they may simply be unskilled in negotiating and make mistakes. Whatever the cause, try not to over-react and make the situation worse.


What To Do

Decide Whether You Want to Save the Situation

You've had a long day and things aren't going well. Do you want to rescue what's left of the negotiation? If not, suggest postponing the negotiation to another day. If you do want to persevere, try the following approach.

Look at the diagram below. It shows two possible ways of behaving when working with others. When someone asks us for help, or appears to need it, the natural tendency of most people is to try to offer a solution. We generally produce one of the three kinds of behavior in the top half of the diagram:

  • we advise people what to do;
  • we tell them;
  • we offer to do something for them under certain conditions.

This is called "solution-centered behavior" because it focuses principally on finding an answer. Sometimes this works, but it is rather easy to produce a brilliant solution to what later turns out to be the wrong problem. And when this happens, it is, of course, your fault!


An alternative approach is to use "problem-centered behavior," which means going "below the line" shown in the diagram, and questioning the other person about how he or she understands the problem.

You can do this either by consulting ("What exactly is the problem?", "When did it occur?", "What might have caused it?" and so on) or reflecting ("I can see that you're very angry about this, what's causing it?", "What aspect of the problem is troubling you most?"). The key message here is to consult about facts, reflect on feelings (Source: Margerison). The purpose is to make sure that you both share a clear understanding of what the problem is. In fact, helping the other person to clarify his or her thinking about the problem often allows the answer to emerge as if by magic. The other party then feels as if they "own" the solution, so they feel committed to it and you may not need to use the solution-centered behavior at all. Even if the answer does not appear automatically, though, you can now direct or advise from a much better understanding of the issues.

Tap Into the Power of Questions

The key to the "below-the-line" approach is that it obliges you to ask questions, which is always a good idea if you have to deal with difficult people, as it enables you to control the conversation-if you ask a question, people will usually answer it. This approach avoids confrontation, and it may get you valuable information about the person or the negotiation.

Remember the Guidelines

  • When in doubt go "below the line": consult and reflect.
  • Ask good, useful, open questions: plan them carefully.
  • Ask for the other party's proposals or ideas-don't give yours first.
  • Ask for clarification of the other party's proposals rather than saying what is wrong with them.
  • Ask about their goals and objectives rather than telling them about yours.
  • Ask how you can help them.

Have a Backup Plan If All Else Fails

If the other person is still being "difficult" and hindering the negotiation, more drastic action is needed. Either he or she doesn't want the negotiation to succeed, or is unable to conduct the discussion properly at this time. In any case, you need to do something to move things along.

Acknowledge that there seems to be a problem and ask three key questions:

  • Does he or she want to continue the discussions?
  • Would it be better if you spoke with someone else? A more senior member of staff, for example?
  • Is there anything you can do that will help him or her feel more comfortable with the negotiation?

Deal With Difficult Situations

Not all negotiations take place face-to-face these days; in fact, most negotiations happen over the phone or by e-mail. Here we'll look at negotiating by phone. People sometimes opt for this to save time, but it's very much a second-best situation: avoid it as much as possible, except for simple negotiations.

For these straightforward discussions, telephone contact can have certain advantages:

  • it is relatively cheap and usually quite quick;
  • you can spread your papers out in front of you for easy reference-this is especially useful if you need to refer to price lists, discounts, and so on ;
  • you can use checklists to act as prompts;
  • you can take notes or make calculations as you wish;
  • the telephone forces you both to listen well;
  • decisions can be made promptly.

However, there are a number of general disadvantages for both parties, but particularly for the party that has not initiated the discussion. You need to take account of these if put in this situation. The main problems are:

  • you have little time to think;
  • you get no "feel" for the other person, because you can't see them, and you can't pick up on any nonverbal clues in their behavior;
  • the telephone is impersonal; it is difficult to use the "personal domain";
  • many standard negotiation tactics are less effective over the phone;
  • it is difficult to set and keep to an agenda;
  • people are more inclined to say "no" on the phone because they don't get that little extra reassurance that comes from face-to-face contact;

  • "what if...?" questions and searches for a "better deal" can be more difficult on the phone-there is a tendency to stick to the specified business;
  • it can be difficult to coordinate within your own organization;
  • there is a danger of distractions: visitors, noise, pending appointments, and so on;
  • many people feel pressured by time during a phone call;
  • silences are more threatening in a phone call (and in some countries, may lead to the connection being lost) ;
  • you feel as if you have to make decisions too quickly;
  • the line may be bad, disrupting the flow of the negotiation, and you don't know who else is listening;
  • if you forget something, it may be difficult to come back to the point or introduce it later: telephone calls tend to be "linear" (that is, you may have only one opportunity to say or raise something), whereas face-to-face conversations can go around in loops.

If you have to negotiate over the phone, arrange a time that will allow you to do some preparation beforehand. If someone "ambushes" you and you're caught off guard, ask if you can call them back in half an hour or so.

Have all the necessary paperwork close at hand. For example, if you're discussing the renewal of a contract, make sure you have a copy close by that you can refer to. Also have plenty of paper nearby that you can make notes on.

Make sure that you won't be disturbed. If you have an office, close the door. If you work in an open-plan office, see if you can book a meeting room elsewhere in the building so that you won't be distracted by other people's conversations around you.

Even though the other party can't see you, use the body language you would use if they were there in person, for example nod if you agree, move your hands as you speak. All of this will filter back in the tone of your voice.

Take a break and arrange to call the other person back if things are getting heated or you've reached a stalemate. Once agreement has been reached, follow up in writing as you would do if you'd conducted a face-to-face negotiation.


What To Avoid

You Battle On When It's Just Not Worth It

While everyone aims to tie up negotiations with the least amount of fuss and wasted time possible, some days it just won't work. On those days, it's important to recognize this, cut your losses, and rearrange for another time.

You Don't Get to the Bottom of Why Someone Is Being "Difficult"

Even though your patience may be stretched to its absolute limit, try to put yourself in the other party's shoes to find out why they are acting in the way that they are. Also ask questions that allow the other party to disclose their concerns and motivations-you may actually be able to help them, thus achieving that ideal win-win goal.


Where To Learn More