Dealing with Difficult People

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

DealingWithDifficultPeopleConcept description

The Harvard Program on Negotiation has produced a Special Report (reference below) on dealing with difficult people.

What type of hard bargainer are you facing?

From Katherine Shonk, Editor, Negotiation newsletter. First published in the Negotiation newsletter, August 2011.

Shonk identifies three types of hard bargainers and offers advice on getting through to each of them.

  1. The accidental hard bargainer. Seasoned negotiators understand that mental shortcuts can impair our most important decisions without our awareness. In the Negotiation newsletter, we show you how to reduce the ill effects of subtle cognitive biases on your thinking, including overconfidence, egocentrism, and the tendency to escalate commitment to a chosen course of action. We also explore how emotions affect our decisions – for example, carrying over from one event to affect an unrelated negotiation.
  2. The reluctant hard bargainer. Sometimes a negotiator’s tough stance can be chalked up to constraints or interests of which you are unaware. Take the case of a potential customer who hands you a long “nonnegotiable” draft agreement. Trying to explain that negotiation is standard industry practice or touting your company’s superior track record is unlikely to get you very far. After a short discussion, you might find yourself walking away from the table or, if you are desperate for business, accepting a bad deal wholesale. Instead, try probing the interests behind your counterpart’s excessive demands. “I think it’s great that you have high standards because we do, too,” you might say. “Why don’t you tell me about what is keeping you from negotiating, and maybe we can move on from there.”
  3. The intentional hard bargainer. At times you will encounter negotiators who believe that hard bargaining is the most effective strategy. They may attempt to manipulate you by using displays of anger, hurt feelings, or even mental illness to get what they want, writes Northwestern University professor Leigh Thompson in her book The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005). Thompson tells the story of AOL’s advertising chief Myer Berlow playing with a large knife during a 2003 negotiation with CEO Jeff Bezos. When displeased by another AOL executive who was attending the meeting, Berlow reportedly threatened to stab him. Manipulative negotiators are often quite effective at convincing their opponents to agree to their demands. We tend to assume that we will be strong in the face of a tough negotiating partner, but research by Kristina A. Diekmann of the University of Utah and Ann E. Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame University shows that we are actually likely to back down in the heat of the moment.

Shonk suggests that, when dealing with a difficult person, you need to tread carefully. If modeling good negotiating behavior doesn’t work, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind has several recommendations.

  • First, clarify to the other party that you can be pushed only so far. “If you can’t be more flexible, it might be time for you to explore other offers,” you might say.
  • Second, to get a reality check, include other members of your organization in the negotiation and encourage your counterpart to bring members of his as well.
  • Finally, summarize each negotiation session and send the memo to interested parties—a tactic that will put your partner on notice that others are monitoring his actions and statements. If your partner still refuses to cooperate after you have taken these steps, it is probably time to give up and move on.
When life gives you lemons – how to deal with difficult people

From Susan Hackley (Managing Director, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School). First published in the Negotiation newsletter, November 2004.

Hackley makes six observations:

  1. Holding your ground. Dealing with difficult people can be challenging, and doing it effectively calls for special skills (see Ury’s five-step strategy below).
  2. When you need to just say no. Sometimes, even with joint problem solving, you need to convey a firm and clear “no.” How do you say no while still preserving the relationship? Ury suggests sandwiching the no between two “yeses.” First, say yes to your own interests and needs. Then say no to the particular demand or behavior. Finally, say yes as you make a proposal. In the case of the assistant wanting to work from home, you may learn about her interests and still decide that they aren’t compelling enough for you to agree to her request. You first explain your interest: “I want to have our team here working together and sharing ideas. I value your contribution and need you to be part of that team.” Then comes the no: “I understand your concerns about the long commute, but I’ve decided that you can’t work from home two days a week.” Finally, a proposal: “We can talk about having you work from home occasionally, and we can talk about arranging your hours differently so you avoid peak commuting hours. Or we can discuss reassigning you to a different job where it’s not as important for you to be here physically.”
  3. Facing the challenge. It can be extremely challenging to stand up to difficult people who may have an arsenal of weapons, including ridicule, bullying, insults, deception, and exaggeration. In some cases, they might attack you; in others, they might avoid confrontation. Sometimes you are taken by surprise; at other times, there might be a chronic problem you need to address. Whenever possible, prepare in advance for difficult negotiations. First of all, know yourself. What are your hot-button issues? What is essential to you? What is unacceptable? Next, think about what you are likely to hear from your opponent and plan how you might react.
  4. Build a golden bridge. Once you have brought your difficult opponent to the table, you may need to build a “golden bridge,” Ury’s term for letting your opponent save face and view the outcome as at least a partial victory. … So how do you help your difficult opponent save face, while still standing up for yourself? Ury suggests reframing the problem so that you draw your opponents in the direction you want them to move. By way of example, he relates a story told by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who was relentlessly bullied by an older boy when he was about 13 years old. Spielberg figured he couldn’t beat the bully at his game, which was to use physical force, so he changed the game, inviting him to play a war hero in a movie he was making about fighting the Nazis. As Spielberg describes it, “I made him the squad leader in the film, with helmet, fatigues, and backpack. After that, he became my best friend.”
  5. Listen to learn. If there is a common denominator in virtually all successful negotiations, it is to be an active listener, by which Ury means not only to hear what the other person is saying but also to listen to what is behind the words. Active listening is something frequently talked about but rarely done well; it is a subtle skill that requires constant, thoughtful effort. A good listener will disarm his opponent by stepping to his side, asking open-ended questions, and encouraging him to tell you everything that is bothering him. Beyond that, Ury says, “he needs to know that you have heard [and understood] what he has said.” So sum up your understanding of what he has said and repeat it in his own words. Ury points out that there is a big payoff for you: “If you want him to acknowledge your point, acknowledge his first.” And you may find you have little choice but to do this – how else to avoid a stalemate.
  6. You don’t have to like them. Dealing with difficult people does not mean liking them or even agreeing with them, but it does mean acknowledging that you understand their viewpoint.
Ury’s five-step strategy for dealing with hard bargainers

Hackley describes the five points in Ury’s “breakthrough negotiation” method that he calls “a way to “change the game from face-to-face confrontation into side-by-side problem-solving.”

  1. Don’t react; go to the balcony. When someone is difficult, your natural reaction might be to get angry – or to give in. Instead, take yourself mentally to a place where you can look down objectively on the dispute and plan your response. Anytime you find your hot buttons getting pushed, try “going to the balcony.”
  2. Disarm them by stepping to their side. One of the most powerful steps to take – and one of the most difficult – is to try to understand the other person’s point of view. Ask questions and show genuine curiosity.
  3. Change the game; don’t reject – reframe. You don’t have to play along with a difficult person’s game. Instead of locking into a battle of will or fixed positions, consider putting a new frame on the negotiation.
  4. Make it easy to say yes. Build a golden bridge. Look for ways to help your opponent save face and feel that he’s getting his way, at least in some matters. Using objective standards of fairness can help create a bridge between your interests.
  5. Make it hard to say no. Bring them to their senses, not their knees. Use your power and influence to help educate your opponent about the situation. If she understands the consequences and your alternatives, she may be open to reason.
Bring your deal back from the brink

From Katherine Shonk, Editor, Negotiation newsletter. First published in the Negotiation newsletter, August 2008.

Shonk presents 10 strategies that can be used to bring a negotiation back from the brink of failure.

  1. Set standards of behavior. Discuss acceptable norms of behavior with a potentially difficult counterpart before you negotiate, advises Stanford University professor Stephen John Stedman, who has studied “deal spoilers” in the context of global peacemaking initiatives. Such norms can help you judge the legitimacy of the other party’s demands and behaviors. If you think tempers could rise, for example, you might agree to listen respectfully to each other and to not raise your voices. Or if you suspect someone could get cold feet at the last moment, you might pledge to discuss ways to save the deal before walking away from the negotiating table.
  2. Avoid dismissive labels. Too often, we label anyone standing in the way of our goals as irrational, stubborn, or worse. Such judgments can limit our options and result in costly strategic errors. Even if you feel certain that someone’s behavior is foolish, destructive, or downright crazy, acknowledge that he is acting out of very human concerns and emotions. It’s your job to find out what they are.
  3. Take the pressure off. Time pressure can cause negotiators to say no to a deal when it would be in their best interest to say yes. For this reason, be sure all parties to an agreement have ample opportunity to consider proposals and contract drafts. Calling for a break gives everyone time to make smart decisions and can head off an escalating war of words.
  4. Probe the other side’s point of view. How can you figure out the motives behind someone’s seemingly stubborn position? Begin by questioning her about the problem she is trying to solve. Deal blockers may be held back by financial, legal, personal, or other constraints you don’t know about. A tough stance could also communicate a psychological need that isn’t being satisfied.
  5. Put forth multiple proposals. Sometimes people will block deals simply to get your attention. By developing several proposals that meet your interests well and that also address the other side’s needs, you convey the important message that you’ve been listening.
  6. Be ready to walk. Threats and punishment may be necessary when you’re negotiating with people who rigidly adhere to all their demands, according to Stanford’s Stephen John Stedman. You must be prepared to follow through on your threats, of course. That’s why it’s crucial for you to research your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA, at the same time you’re negotiating your preferred deal.
  7. Share your feelings. When someone calls off a deal at the last minute, don’t assume she’s deliberately trying to hurt you. It could very well be that she’s preoccupied with her own interests and hasn’t thought about how her decision will affect you. For this reason, not only do you need to give potential deal spoilers a chance to vent, but you also need to articulate your own frustrations constructively. By doing so, you can encourage the other party to understand your perspective and guide her toward more collaborative behavior.
  8. Weigh the benefits of a concession. Another option for dealing with difficult negotiators is to craft what Harvard Law School professor Robert C. Bordone calls a “workaround” – a strategy for meeting your current goals without the involvement or support of your adversary. You might be able to induce a yes with a tempting concession on a key issue, according to Bordone. Offering a concession can be a dangerous strategy, as it may only encourage someone to push for more. But if a concession would allow you to move beyond that person once and for all, it may be your best option.
  9.  Build a coalition. Another workaround technique is to build coalitions that will influence the deal blocker in your favor. By enticing a recalcitrant party to follow influential others on a particular course, coalitions exploit patterns of deference, according to Harvard Business School professor James Sebenius. To build a coalition in support of your desired outcome, make a list of those who have an interest in a potential deal, and consider how they might influence the spoiler. Next, figure out the best sequence in which to approach these parties. Finally, present your case to these key individuals.
  10. Accept no for an answer. Badgering someone into accepting a deal is never a good idea, even if you’re sure it would be in her best interest. Not only can coercion be unethical and even illegal, but also a dissatisfied counterpart could sabotage the deal during implementation. If you’ve exhausted the strategies above and the other party still won’t say yes, it’s time to move on.

Program On Negotiation, Harvard Law School, Special Report, Dealing with Difficulty People, free download available at, accessed 24 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Negotiating (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 25 March 2016.

Image: Dealing with Difficulty People, free download available at, accessed 24 March 2016.