Two Kinds of People You Should Never Negotiate With

The first thing negotiation experts teach is to “separate the people from the problem.” The vast majority of the time, this is sound advice. But as a psychologist, I know that approximately 1% of the time, people are the problem.  And in such cases, normal negotiation strategies just don’t work. Here’s how to recognize that rare situation and what to do about it.

First, determine what sort of person or people you’re trying to negotiate with (i.e. your counterparty).

Here are two types of counterparties you should negotiate with, even when it seems difficult.

1. Emotional counterparties. Emotion in and of itself shouldn’t preclude you from reaching a successful agreement – it’s natural for people to feel strong emotion in a conflict situation. Once the conflict is identified and addressed, and parties are allowed to vent, emotion usually dissipates. Keep in mind that some people (and cultures) simply express more feelings than others. Also, some negotiators use emotion strategically to influence the other party. Recognize the emotion, but don’t let it stop you from negotiating.

2. Unreasonable counterparties. We often think people are being unreasonable when they don’t agree with our logic and evidence. But more often, people who disagree with us are simply seeing different problems, and even different sets of facts, than we are. Even if you think the other party is being unreasonable, it’s still possible to bridge the gap and close a deal.

But here are two types of counterparties you should never negotiate with:

1. A counterparty who alternates between conciliation and provocation. People are usually more provocative, or difficult to deal with, at the outset of a negotiation. Then they become more conciliatory as the outlines of a settlement develop. Beware the person who is conciliatory at first, then becomes provocative — and then when you’re about to walk away becomes conciliatory again, and then provocative again. This behavior suggests that he will never be satisfied, nor finished, with the negotiation. What he wants is not a negotiated settlement, but control — over the process and over you. The time and energy it will take to continue will eventually outweigh any potential gains you could achieve through negotiation.

2. A counterparty who persists in seeing people in terms of absolute good and evil. Negotiation is a method for resolving conflicts of interest, not for adjudicating who is at fault. Most people, once they understand this, are willing to exchange concessions in order to satisfy their underlying interests. Watch out for someone who describes people as absolutely good and blameless, or as absolutely evil and responsible. This behavior suggests that he or she lacks the mindset necessary for negotiation. What this person wants is for evil people to be held accountable and punished, and because you are in a conflict with her, you may fall into that category. Walking away would deprive her of the opportunity to punish you. Therefore, if you negotiate, you can expect the process to be painful. You can also expect not to receive meaningful concessions, because this type of person does not believe you deserve them.

Even the best negotiators cannot reach a win-win outcome with people like this, as their underlying interests can’t be addressed with a settlement. The best negotiation advice and practice will not help you in these rare situations. Instead, here are four steps you should take:

Be realistic. This person is not going to change. There is no negotiation strategy you can use to make him or her change. Your goal should be to extricate yourself with the most gains (or least losses) possible. Let’s say you have a tenant behind on the rent. It’s worth negotiating with an emotional, even unreasonable tenant. Deep down, her primary interest is to keep the apartment. She can ultimately be trusted to act in her own interest. On the other hand, it’s not worth negotiating with an alternatively conciliatory, then provocative tenant who blames his neighbors and the property manager for his situation. Deep down, his primary interest is not the apartment; it’s his need to control the people around him.

Stop making concessions. The purpose of concessions is to reach an agreement, but since you’ll never do that (no matter how much you’re willing to give up!), don’t waste your time. That doesn’t mean you won’t incur significant losses. Your goal should be to minimize those losses. For example, if someone on your team fits the description of a no-win negotiator, you may already have made many concessions and picked up her share of the work, while she has yet to follow through on her promises to you. Enough! Do whatever is necessary to get the project finished, but stop making offers to her.

Reduce your interdependence. Take whatever steps you can to reduce your interdependence with this person. You don’t want to depend on him for anything, or owe him anything, going forward. This means, for example, that a lump sum payment for services is better than a payment plan. Working independently on separate pieces of a project is better than working together on the whole thing. If you must continue to work with this person, remember that even very immature children can still play nicely side-by-side if each is given his or her own set of toys.

Make it public, hold them accountable, and use a third party if you can. Avoid private discussions, if possible. Get everything out in the open and put everything in writing. Try to bump accountability to the next level, so someone higher up has to take action if the other party does not follow through on his or her obligations. If you can utilize a third party, like a mediator, arbitrator, or judge, then do so.

Remember, 99 times out of 100, your counterpart has rational underlying interests that you will eventually discover with patience and the right strategies. The secret to negotiating, after all, is to find out what the other party wants and how much it’s worth to him. In those rare cases when your counterparty wants to use the negotiation to control or punish you, however, it doesn’t matter how much it’s worth to him. It’s worth more to you to be free of him and able to get on with your business. Isn’t it?

Focus On: Negotiating
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