There is a lot of conventional wisdom around negotiation. Be well-prepared. Keep emotion out of the negotiation. Look for the win/win.
But, sometimes, you’re sitting across the table from someone who isn’t dealing with you in good faith. They may see the negotiation as a zero-sum game. They may be biased against you in some way. Or maybe they’re just a jerk.
In his popular Yale University class on negotiating, Professor Barry Nalebuff helps students learn negotiation tactics to help them deal with all sorts of personalities and situations. Nalebuff, author of Split the Pie: A Radical New Way to Negotiate, even shares first-hand experiences from his own career, including selling his company, Honest Tea, to The Coca-Cola Company. He began the course because he quips that it’s “malpractice” to have a business program without teaching negotiation skills.
The next time you are across the table from someone who’s not acting in good faith, there are some ways to shift the situation in ways that may defuse tension, align goals, and give you more of an advantage:
If you find yourself dealing with someone who is being unreasonably contentious or demanding, take a moment to ask yourself why, says leadership and negotiation coach Nadia De Ala. Ask questions or invite greater input, such as, “Tell me more about that,” or ask open-ended questions that may lead to more insight about the other person.
Nalebuff says that bad negotiation behavior isn’t always intentional or nefarious. Sometimes, he says, his students have less-than-fair negotiation styles that arise out of fear or inexperience. “They become a caricature of a jerk because they’re afraid of being taken advantage of,” he says. If you sense the tension is arising out of fear or mistrust, try discussing common goals to remind your counterpart that you share some of the same desired outcomes.
Call it out—or joke about it
Sometimes, the best way to break the ice and begin a more earnest negotiation is to call out the unspoken fear, Nalebuff says. There are a number of ways to do this. One way is to recap what the goals of the negotiation are, defining what’s being negotiated so that everyone is on the same page. Humor is often a valuable tool, Nalebuff says. Making a joke about a tough negotiation ahead can get a laugh and warm up the room. (“So, we’re saying the same thing—we’re here to bluff and lie,” said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.)
Nalebuff says he made a “rookie mistake” when he was beginning the negotiations to sell Honest Tea and named a too-high asking price. His counterpart said, “Great, where do I sign? Just kidding.” The joke elicited a laugh and the parties got down to business. Being able to laugh—especially at yourself—can make a tough negotiation better.
Don’t be afraid of silence
Be aware of the silence in the conversation and use it to your advantage, says Andres Lares, managing partner at Shapiro Negotiations Institute and author of Persuade: The 4-Step Process to Influence People and Decisions. When there are pauses in the discussion, don’t rush to fill them, he says. Often, we’re uncomfortable with silence and may blurt out a concession or information that can be used by the other party if we’re speaking just to fill the silence. Instead, let the silence linger. You may be surprised at what your counterpart blurts out, he says. If you struggle with discomfort in silence, Lares shares a trick: Bring along a notepad and make notes on which to focus during conversation pauses.
Fight fire with water
Keeping your cool when someone is being unfair isn’t always easy. Fighting fire with fire will escalate a negative situation, Nalebuff says. Fighting fire with water—taking a break, pausing the conversation, asking to reconvene later, for example—gives you both time to cool down. Consider it helping the other person act in a more principled way, he says. This can be particularly important if you’re in a situation where you suspect you’re dealing with bias or other unfair circumstances, De Ala adds.
Another way to refocus the negotiation on the matters at hand is to define one or two key points at the start of the negotiation, and then keep the conversation concentrated on those areas, De Ala says. That way, you have a very narrow set of points on which to focus and there’s less opportunity for the discussion to veer off-topic and get heated.
Know Your “Walk Away” Point
You’ll typically have a stronger negotiating stance if you are willing to walk away from the situation, whether it’s a deal, job, or other situation, Lares says. That may not always seem possible, or you may not be willing to do so. But if you don’t have a “walk away” point, you’ve given up one of your negotiating options and can only push the terms so far without putting the situation in jeopardy. Having a walk-away point is also insurance against being treated unfairly or having to strike a deal with a jerk, he adds.
“If you have a walk away [point], you have another alternative. And that creates more leverage, or perceived leverage, and it changes the way you negotiate,” he says.