Dealing with the Difficult Negotiator

By Ron Shapiro

Whenever we ask participants about their biggest negotiation challenges, we are told that dealing with difficult negotiators is at the top of the list.  “Sure this “win-win” approach is nice, and it probably would work if I was negotiating with a nice person.  But let me tell you, [my boss], [my client], [my spouse] is one of the most difficult people you will ever meet, and the only way to deal with them is to fight fire with fire.

Well, as Abigail Johnson said, “When you fight fire with fire, you usually end up with ashes.”  (check quote in the workbook under “win-lose” negotiation)  I have negotiated with some of the toughest negotiators in my time, George Steinbrenner, Edward Bennett Williams, and Ted Turner to name a few.  No matter how nasty and difficult they become, however, I never lost my cool and I use my Three Ps method and a “win-win” approach, because I understand that, even with a difficult negotiator, the best way to get what I want is to help them get what they want.

When I face the challenge of negotiating with a difficult person, I remember to use the following guidelines:

  1. Don’t React –  Thomas Jefferson said, “When angry, count to ten.  When very angry, count to one hundred.”   Too often during negotiations, we mistakenly match a difficult negotiator’s emotional outburst with an outburst of our own.  Rather than stooping to that level, maintain your calm, and stay focused on your goals.
  2. Tack – The best method of dealing with a difficult person is to do what sailors do when they are facing a headwind.  Rather than trying to sail directly into the gust, sailors have learned to tack, so that they can advance their sailboat regardless of the thrust of the wind directly against them.  Sailors achieve this impressive feat, not by sailing directly into the incoming force, but by maneuvering to the left and the right.  Using a similar method, often negotiators can outmaneuver even the most difficult opponents.
  3. Let Them Save Face – The difficult negotiator certainly does not like to look bad.  Often the difficult negotiator will continue to fight simply to avoid losing face.  It may be tempting to punish the difficult negotiator, especially when you have a superior position.  We recommend, however, that you provide the difficult negotiator with a solution that provides you with everything you would like, but which would also provide the other side with some small amount of success they can use to save face.

4 Responses to “Dealing with the Difficult Negotiator”

  1. Steve says:

    I totally agree. I’ve used a similar technique. Even to the point where you credit the difficult negotiator with some well made points. Nice to see this techique has validity.

  2. Ralph Rizzuto says:

    While I agree to what you say, I would add:
    (1) be willing to walk away – once you have determined the best alternative to a negotiated solution it is easier to walk away.
    (2) b creative – when you are stuck in a negotiation, make the pie bigger. This will also help in getting more information and finding out what the real requirements of the tough negotiator are. It may also give you an opportunity to make him look good by giving up something that is not important to you.
    (3) negotiate both sides – take the Goldfathers advice ” think like the other guy, that’s what pop always said”.
    (4) build trust – a topic unto itself.
    – Ralph

  3. Josef says:

    Good article, thanks for writing it.

    I would only add to the mix here that it is important to:

    1. know thyself. That is, knowing your own negociating style, strengths and weaknesses,

    2. knowing your bottom line in terms of what’s important to the ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ possible,

    3. knowing you difficult negoicator, what is their underlying interest; and

    4. how important is their interest to them, i.e. where is the balance point between interest and their self perception.

  4. Sang Hoang says:

    Very nice article. I think people all know it, but not all of them can apply it.

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