Dealing with difficult people
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We all have to negotiate at times with difficult people, writes William Ury, author of Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People (Bantam Books, 1991). They might be stubborn, arrogant, hostile, greedy, or dishonest. Even ordinarily reasonable people can turn into opponents: A teenage daughter can be charming one moment and hurl insults at you the next. Your boss can be collaborative and be understanding most of the time but make unreasonable demands on a Friday afternoon.

Build a golden bridge. When negotiating with difficult people, 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. Even when your boss comes into your office on Friday afternoon with an inconsiderate request, you need to say no in a way that conveys your respect for him as your boss. You want your assistant to feel that you appreciate her contributions, even if you can’t agree to let her work at home several days a week.

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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.

In particular, involve your opponent in finding a solution. It’s unlikely that a difficult person is going to accept your proposal fully, no matter how reasonable it is. Give him some choices: Would you prefer to meet at your office or mine? I could either pay a lump sum or make payments over time; which is better for you?

Pay careful attention to your opponent, realizing that some of her needs may be unstated. A business owner who won’t engage in problem-solving to help close a deal to sell her business may turn out to have deep-seated ambivalence about selling. Realizing that, you might structure the deal as a joint venture, with a role for her in the new company.

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 that you have little choice but to do this—how else to avoid a stalemate?

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.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, was given the daunting task of negotiating with warlords and others who had caused many deaths, to try to create a stable government. He spoke of the need to negotiate with difficult people.

Whether you’re negotiating with someone who is dangerously angry or only mildly annoying, the same skills are helpful in getting the results you want. Find out what your opponent wants and begin to build a case for why your solution meets her needs. If you’re successful, you can turn your adversaries into your partners.

Adapted from “When Life Gives You Lemons: How to Deal with Difficult People” Negotiation, November 2004

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