Strategies for Dealing with a Nightmare Negotiator

Written by John Curtis on . Posted in Negotiation

Jim Camp is a financial negotiator who has helped people deal with the US IRS for over two decades. He says, “My first tip is that the worst person to negotiate for yourself is yourself. Negotiation is a terribly emotional arena.” It can be emotional for all involved, and as a result, communication can be limited. This tends to set up conditions for an unsatisfying resolution, or no resolution at all. If you come to the table and face someone who is a “nightmare negotiator,” how do you deal with this challenge?

First, what makes people nightmare negotiators?

  • They are unbending. They refuse to consider any alternative resolutions.
  • They are stuck on their position and either do not understand or do not disclose their interests.
  • They do not listen to your interests.
  • There is one way to resolve this situation – their way.

Here are some ways that you can work to deal with a negotiator who doesn’t really want to negotiate.

  • Develop trust. This is the best way to get to a person’s real interest. But this can be difficult. Approach the situation with discussion. What are your needs? What do you want? What is your understanding of the issue? Don’t use a checklist mentality; you are not just ticking questions off a list or asking just to ask. This is known as “techniquing” and will come off as inauthentic, which it is. Ask because you are interested and because you want to hear the answers. If you find that you are not in fact interested in their answers – remember that without first understanding the “why” of the other  person, you are not likely to get to a lasting resolution.  This should motivate you to be interested.
  • Ask little questions. “Why do you want that?” Now, what’s wrong with this question if you sincerely want to know? It instantly puts the other party on guard. It puts them into a position where they feel like they have to defend themselves. And no matter how mature they are, they want to say, “Because I said so, that’s why.”  Even though you want to know the “why” it might be better to come at it less directly.  This is not always the case, but it is a common mistake and often feels like you are “going for the jugular” to the other person.

It is easy to misconstrue “why.” Instead, break the big question into little questions. How? Where? What? Don’t ask that they defend their position; try to get to their real interests with these smaller, more manageable questions.

  • Step back. When we get stuck, it’s often on a communication roadblock. There’s something going on that is causing this negotiation to go off the rails. Step back and examine the situation. How are you going about getting answers? Can you re-frame your questions? Can you watch your tone? Can you use silence or take a break to change the dynamic?  Can you ask them what they would do in your position? Do you need a mediator or some one-on-one conflict coaching before carrying on with the negotiations.
  • Be prepared with your BATNA. Before you even sit down at the table, have your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement in mind. If the other party starts being difficult, you can measure whether or not it is worth continuing in the discussion. If your BATNA is better than what they are offering you, you walk away. If it’s not, you continue and ask yourself, “How do I approach this person from here on out?”  Consider sharing your BATNA with the other person, but be careful not to have this come across as an ultimatum because that will likely escalate things in the wrong direction.

You cannot control the other party in negotiations. What you can do is transform yourself into the best negotiator for you. Communication styles, question-asking, thinking about your interests and those of the other party, and stepping back to re-evaluate the situation are all crucial. And they are all skills you can practice and use in virtually any interaction.

John Curtis

John Curtis

John Curtis is a successful lawyer with over 15 years’ experience in litigation focusing on Sport Law and Mediation Services. In addition, he is an expert in providing engaging, hands-on Conflict Resolution Training including Mediation Training, Negotiation Skills Training and Conflict Coach Training