How to Deal with Barriers at the Negotiation Table

Leading negotiation expert, commercial performance strategist, and business consultant Natalie Reynolds discusses how to overcome two of the most common problems faced by negotiators; aggression and rejection from your counterpart.

1: How to handle aggression during negotiations

Over the course of your career, you’ve likely worked with counterparts who are respectful, collaborative, and with whom you get along fabulously. You’re also likely to run into counterparts decidedly less pleasant to interact with. They may be rude, condescending, insulting, or aggressive – or all four.

In these challenging circumstances, achieving a successful negotiation result for yourself or your organisation can be especially draining and difficult. You can know the details of your negotiation inside out, have mastered the theory and process of negotiation and know your breakpoint on every issue…but if you are unable to navigate the difficult atmosphere or rise above the intimidating behaviour, you could end up with a sub-standard result and a feeling of frustration.

Seek to understand

Trying to understand what’s prompting the aggressive behaviour in a counterpart isn’t easy, but it is incredibly helpful. Seeking to understand the behaviour will help you prepare thoroughly for the negotiation and remind you that you shouldn’t take this behaviour personally.

Perhaps your counterpart is feeling threatened, and this behaviour is their ego’s way of asserting itself. They may also be under severe pressure from their stakeholders to bring back a specific result, and this aggression is a tactic to put you on the back foot and gain the upper hand in the negotiations. Sometimes, a private matter may have reached the boiling point in their lives and you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s important to note that understanding the behaviour doesn’t mean condoning or accepting the behaviour. Tapping into your empathy, and understanding what may be driving this behaviour is important in preparing yourself for taking action to end it.

There are two options for how to handle an aggressive counterpart:

1. Ignore the behaviour

Chances are, your counterpart is looking for a reaction from you. Anger, frustration – even to match their own insulting behaviour. Don’t give it to them. Don’t react. Don’t respond. Just continue as if nothing is happening. If their aggression was a tactic to throw you off your game, they’ll see that it’s not working and stop. If their behaviour was an outburst, they’ll soon burn themselves out without any fuel being added to their flame.

2. Call out the behaviour

Keeping your cool during a barrage of attacks from a counterpart is difficult. But keeping your cool and taking action to end their behaviour can be even more so. Your goal in calling out the aggression is to make their behaviour the issue. For example, you can do this by saying:

Can we all agree to try and diffuse this atmosphere?” or “Would you like me to call a break? You seem to have a lot of hostility towards me and I would like to resolve it.

Interrupting the behaviour like this gives both of you the opportunity to calm down, and address the issue head on, and then regroup to focus your efforts of achieving the best possible outcome in your negotiation.

Some people may try and suggest that there is a third way to deal with aggressive behaviour…to match it and be just aggressive to them. I disagree.

I am always very cautious of this approach for the simple reason of maintaining credibility and professionalism. In my view – once you vacate the moral high ground it can be very challenging to claw your way back up again.

2: How to deal with rejection:

During a negotiation, what we want to hear is a Yes. We hope that our suggestions or proposals will be met with agreement from the other side. However, I do spend a lot of time advising my clients that whilst a Yes is often a sign of success, we also need to be cautious of the yes that comes too easily. Put simply, if your counterpart accepts your first proposal immediately and with no challenge, this is often a sign that you have in no way just secured the best deal that you could have done.

Therefore, what all negotiators need to be able to effectively navigate is in fact the journey from a No to a Yes. Hearing a No to an initial proposal should be your cue that now the negotiations can really begin, that now you are really exploring what the best option could really be.

How you respond to a No defines you as a negotiator

However, the problem with this is that people don’t like to hear a No. People don’t like to be rejected. In fact research has shown that humans have a neurological oversensitivity to rejection. Put simply, we remember the pain of a No, longer than we remember the happiness of a Yes.

At my firm, we believe that how you respond to a No defines you as a negotiator. If you hear a No and view it as the end of the conversation or you don’t push the issue further, then you risk losing any power you might have had. However, if you hear a No and you view it as the beginning, the chance to ask questions, to make proposals and to seek to understand your counterpart further, then you have the hallmarks of being a brilliant, and resilient, negotiator.

Natalie Reynolds is a leading negotiation expert, commercial performance strategist and business consultant who has worked with companies around the world including JP Morgan Chase, Salesforce, Allianz, LVMH, Rolls Royce, UBS, Lidl, Mercedes-Benz, Facebook and Shell as well as with Governments, NGO’s and the United Nations.

A specialist in using psychology to unlock positive results, Natalie has coached executives to use negotiation techniques to help navigate challenge, improve performance and clarify ambition and direction as well as advising companies on how to ensure optimum negotiation capability. Natalie is the author of a bestselling book on negotiation ‘We Have a Deal’, is Honorary Visiting Professor of Negotiation at Cass Business School and speaks around the world on innovation in negotiation practice.

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