July 6, 2017
By Chuck Doran and Vincent Lowney
During a difficult negotiation, it can be easy to characterize the other side as mean, stupid, or crazy. The danger of these characterizations is that we lose focus on understanding the perspective and interests of the other party, and rather find ourselves throwing our hands in the air and getting frustrated. Instead of labeling them as difficult, we can focus on the difficult tactics they are utilizing. Examining their behavior at this level allows us to understand their motives and plan an appropriate and effective response.
Difficult tactics can, for a variety of reasons, provoke strong emotions within us, and we have to be aware what tactics may push our particular buttons. When faced with difficult tactics, William Ury suggests the following five steps in his book Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations:
It is important to not have an immediate, potentially damaging knee-jerk reaction to whatever difficult tactic being presented. Instead, take the moment to “go the balcony” and attempt to get perspective on how their actions are impacting you. This is also a good time to “name the game” by identifying the action the other party is taking. These tactics can often be grouped into three large categories: stone walls, attacks, or tricks.
It is easy to react to a difficult tactic with confrontation. It can, however, be much more effective to instead disarm the other side by listening to what they have to say, acknowledging their emotions and the point they are making, and then emphasizing the points on which you can agree. This can have the effect of making them feel heard, as well as allowing you to project the image that both parties are working together in an attempt to solve the problem.
With all difficult tactics, we can reframe the negotiation to deflect or subvert their impact. For example, a stone wall can be interpreted as an aspirational statement or goal as opposed to a be-all, end-all threat. If the other side of the table says, “We have presented what we believe the contract is worth, and we won’t discuss the per unit cost anymore,” this can be responded to and reframed as “I understand your cost constraint, so keeping that mind, can we spend some time talking about delivery arrangements?” This reframing is an opportunity to keep the negotiation going and gain value using different criteria.
Similarly, personal attacks can be reinterpreted as an attack on the joint problem as opposed to an attached on an individual. If someone says, “You’re being unreasonable,” you can respond and reframe by saying, “So you don’t see my point of view as reasonable. What would be reasonable for you?”
And finally, tricks can be defused though probing questions and reasonable requests. If the other party is using difficult tactics, negotiate with one another about the rules of your negotiation. Being straightforward and naming what you see allows you to diffuse the tactic and identify how you want to move forward.
When we are frustrated, it is easy to present the “perfect” answer and attempt to push the other side to say yes to it. Instead, we want to make it easy – and desirable – for the other side to say yes. Include them in the process by asking for and building upon their ideas, and give them a chance to save face if they must contradict their previous position.
For example, as opposed to presenting the perfect answer as a fait accompli, instead strive to generate a slate of options that all have equal value to you but will allow the other party to express their preferences. Additionally, solicit their input, even if you believe you have presented the answer. Open ended questions such as “What are your thoughts? Is there anything else you would like to add?” are very powerful. Parties who feel they have had a role in generating the outcome will have more buy-in to see the agreement through.
The use of power, or the ability to coerce the other side into acquiescing to your position, can seem like the easy answer during a negotiation. Once you try to force someone into something, you are then presented with the power paradox described by William Ury: “The harder you make it for them to say no, the harder you make it for them to say yes.” In these cases, agreeing feels like defeat.
To circumvent this trap, there are other ways to use power at the table. Begin by asking reality-testing questions and allowing the other side to understand the drawbacks of not reaching a deal. Frame these consequences as warnings, not threats. A warning can be respectful and objective, while a threat will appear subjective and confrontational. It can also be powerful to demonstrate your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) and willingness to walk away. Continuing to negotiate with a party when you have demonstrated that you aren’t required to is especially impactful.
These steps are all tools that can be used to neutralize difficult negotiation tactics, without castigating the other parties as mean, stupid or crazy. While difficult tactics are part of some negotiations, being prepared to identify and defuse these actions will enable you and your negotiation counterpart to work together to find win-win solutions.
To learn more about dealing with difficult tactics in your negotiations, contact Chuck Doran, Executive Director, at 617-895-4026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit mwi.org/negotiation for more information about how MWI’s negotiation workshops can help improve your negotiation skills.