How to negotiate with a bully

I recently posted a question in an Expert Negotiator blog dealing with negotiators who bully people. Bullying is manifested by a number of behaviors, including making outrageous demands, insisting on their position and threatening to walk away from the negotiation.

Immediately I received this response, “There is nothing more emotionally taxing in the world of negotiation than dealing with this type of personality!” Another participant responded, “I would recommend letting the ‘bully’ do what they think they do best. From my perspective only one person should feel perfectly okay and relaxed in a negotiation. That person is always the adversary (respected opponent).”

Another blogger observed the bully is usually a coward on the inside.

So knowing that little factoid can change everything. I see it as a “big tell.” My preference in negotiating is covered in Roger Fisher and William Ury’s book, “Getting to Yes.” It all depends if this is a one-time deal or if you are trying to become strategic partners. We need to revisit what Ury said in his second book, “Getting Past No.” He wrote, “they need to know that the only way they can win is if they cooperate.”

Research has shown that 70 percent of the bullies are men. I also discovered that there are five types of bullies: the serial, the control freak, the promotion seeking, the pressurized and the substance abusing bully. Their goals range from just causing someone misery, to amassing power. I have a concern as a behavioral psychologist if people involved in a negotiation try to diagnose their counterparts. I would rather see them deal directly with the behavior. I have found the best way to deal with a bully is to let them know there are consequences to their behavior, including a lost opportunity to achieve a deal.

Here are some phases you could use when dealing with bullying behaviors:

  1. Call out the behavior in an observation and link it to a common goal. For example, “I think we both want to find a solution to this problem but it is going to be difficult with you yelling (or interrupting or shouting or name calling, etc.).”
  2. “I can see you feel pretty upset (frustrated, angry, etc.).” That usually elicits an agreement and helps diffuse their emotion.
  3. “Do we need a break and give you some time?” (I try not to say the obvious … to calm yourself down.”)
  4. “It is obvious that we are not going to make any progress today, so let’s set another date.”
  5. You can also state that “I can’t see how an agreement can be reached if this behavior continues.”

One key tool to use is a negative strip-line. By using more negative statements than those coming from the bully, you should see emotions come slightly back to a more neutral state. If you don’t see this happen, you either picked a poor statement, or the other party is bluffing to try and drive unnecessary concessions. Phase number five in the previous paragraph is an example of a strip-line.

One colleague observed in the blog, “Why waste valuable time arguing? Both people have responsibilities and if nothing is being accomplished, why proceed? Aren’t all negotiators good actors? We all play a role when negotiating and it is dependent on whom we are negotiating with. In some cases, I end up educating the other negotiator as to how best to approach the problem. I usually get a positive response.” It is all about being collaborative and building a relationship.

An option I have used is to request that we change the players in the negotiations. This strategy was used successfully in a past labor contract negotiation. My statement to the union’s regional VP was that I could not see us making any progress with the team he had in place. The VP came in and took control of his team and we moved forward and attained an agreement.

Even more importantly, I also like increasing the amount of time, energy, money and emotion the other party must spend to come to an agreement. Making a bully and his/her team work harder to get to an agreement is always beneficial. Typically, no matter how great they think they are at strong-arming, the more blood, sweat, and tears they spend, the harder for them to walk.

We must recognize that there are times when issues cannot be resolved. Both sides have interesting positions. Shall we proceed with another item of interest or adjourn? The choice is up to both/all of you. One way to move past the impasse and proceed is to move to another item on the agenda. This will work when the negotiators can agree to agenda items one by one. The problem is sometimes it is an all-or-nothing negotiation. It is always a good idea to start with a common interest and build from there.

As professional negotiators, our job is to be respected and effective. Being liked or accepted should hold little value and be secondary. You can always exercise your right to reject what the bully is offering. The key is maintaining your emotional control and remaining nurturing enough to keep the other party engaged. Always let the adversary save face. If you punch the bully in the mouth at the table, while this feels good and fun, be ready to let the deal go.

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