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Ask The Negotiator
John Baker
We are delighted to have Richard Morse as a guest respondent for the Ask the Negotiator column. Richard Morse is a consultant for ThoughtBridge (www.thoughtbridge.net), a firm that provides negotiation and conflict resolution training and facilitation services. The firm facilitates large-scale partnership agreements, labor-management disputes. and intra- and inter-organizational conflict resolution. Mr. Morse has delivered negotiation consulting and training for account executives, business development managers and salespeople in the health care, high tech, financial services and manufacturing sectors. In the education field, he has facilitated conflict resolution for administrators, and joint contract negotiation training for school district and teachers union negotiation teams. Mr. Morse holds an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Teaching from Boston University and a Certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown University.

And now, this month’s letter…

Internal Negotiations: Strategies for Negotiating With Difficult People…

From: Perplexed in Houston

Ask the Negotiator,

Negotiations with interdepartmental rivals can be rancorous. Unfortunately previous history both between departments and between personnel is not good.

When (at least) one participant is resistant to the point of running antagonisms with other staff, how can the questions be framed to either work with, slow down or even shut down the resistant party(s)?

Any strategies would be appreciated.

Sign me Perplexed PM in Houston.

Dear Perplexed,

Dealing with a difficult negotiator – anyone you may be trying to influence or persuade – takes on different meaning, and challenge, when that person works in the same company. Often a person who is consistently agonistic has been taught, somehow, that this gets results. Therefore this person may be unwilling or unable to change behaviors until it is clear that only a new, less antagonistic approach will get them what they want. There are several approaches you might try to address the behavior you describe, which fall into three categories:

1.Set boundaries outside of which certain behavior will not be tolerated;

2.De-legitimize the behavior so that person cannot reasonably continue their actions; and

3.Confront the behavior directly to stop it, in the moment and in the long run.

1.Set Boundaries

Boundaries often come in the form of group expectations for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. One approach to dealing with a difficult or antagonistic negotiator is to establish Ground Rules. Ground Rules can be used to set expectations, in essence, for conversational etiquette. They may include things like "only one person speaks at a time," or "before challenging someone else’s view, use active listening to be sure you understand it." More important than the Ground Rules themselves, however, is the fact that they provide the whole group with a yardstick to point to when any one person’s behavior does not measure up.

A step beyond Ground Rules is a Procedural Agreement. This next step focuses on more than the conversations individuals or groups may have "at the table;" it sets behavioral expectations for the working relationships in general. A table of contents for a Procedural Agreement might include: Communication, Decision Making, or Dealing with Conflict. For each of these, all parties can and should participate in developing the Procedural Agreement and, just as with the Ground Rules, the entire group has the responsibility to hold any one individual to the behavioral expectations of the Procedural Agreement.

Remember, both of these strategies are only as successful as the group is willing to commit to them – to creating them early, and maintaining them throughout the negotiation or decision-making process.

2. De-legitimize

Two behaviors often arise when one person tries to disrupt internal negotiations: either they refuse to cooperate with a decision-making process in an attempt to hoard power, or they participate, but work through back channels to undermine the group’s progress. In both cases, it is essential to make it clear that by not actively participating in the negotiating or decision-making, this person forfeits his or her legitimate say in the outcome. To this end, two strategies may help:

The first strategy is to continue to invite a no-show to the table. At every opportunity, make it clear that his or her opinion, input and presence is desired. At the same time, publicize, to whatever extent necessary, the presence of those who do participate. In most organizations, a list of attendees to an important decision or negotiation speaks volumes about who has the opportunity to affect outcomes; absences from the list will say just as much. By remaining consistently absent, any one person who seeks to undermine a group’s authority to negotiate or make a decision will lose – in the group’s eyes and the eyes of the organization – any legitimate claim to criticize the process or the outcome.

The second strategy is to shut down "triangulation" – the behavior that Sam displays as he tries to criticize, undermine or influence Jane by speaking to Phil. Always counterproductive to effective working relationships, triangulation is even more deadly in internal negotiations and decision making. If Sam attempts to "get at" Jane through triangulation, the effective way to de-legitimize the behavior is for any member of the group to tell Sam: "I can see that you have a problem with Jane. You are going to have to speak with her directly; I will not be placed in the middle." Only a clear, consistent message will shut down this behavior.

3. Confront

There is, in the end, no guarantee that these strategies will be successful. Often a belligerent or antagonistic person insists on disrupting a group’s process, and refuses to modify his or her behavior. This person needs to be addressed, gently (so as not to escalate the issue) but firmly (in order to stop it).

It requires great presence of mind, and patience, and fortitude to make statements like this -particularly inside an organization. In my experience, individuals in a group need to know they will have the support of the group to confront the behavior, so they will not feel "alone" in an attempt to stop it. If there is support for a gentle but firm confrontation, some approaches might include: "Jack, I cannot hear you when you are yelling. Please take a moment to collect your thoughts, and we will listen to what you have to say." "Sandra, stop. I know you feel strongly about this, but until you can present your case without attacking others, we’re not going to be able to hear you out."

Finally, if necessary, there should be institutional means in your workplace – and may be legal means, depending on the behavior – to deal with a hostile person. This may include involving superiors, or HR, or others who can influence the antagonistic person, and show him or her that the behavior will not be tolerated. It is bad enough to deal with unreasonable people across the negotiating table, from other organizations; no one should have to work with and endure a threatening person in their own workplace.

Best wishes,


Richard Morse’s article entitled "Internal Negotiations Supporting the External Deal" appeared in the September 2002 edition of The Negotiator Magazine. You may visit his firm at www.thoughtbridge.net [site not found].

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Copyright © 2003, Richard Morse
Copyright © 2003, The Negotiator Magazine