Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
What if you’re in negotiations and you are doing your best to build safety with mutual respect and mutual purpose, but the other side is playing hard ball and making threats and accusations? They do not care about understanding others’ needs. They care about creating conflict with absurdly unreasonable requests. Or, they do not want to make it safe to talk because not talking allows them to get what they want.
Dear Frustrated Negotiator,
When I field a question like this—where one party is describing the other party as not caring, unreasonable, threatening, and accusatory—I often wonder: How true is this? After all, this is just one side of the story. However, in this case I’ll take you at your word.
I spent two decades of my career consulting in organizations where every three years, management would enter formal negotiations with a union. It was there that I learned that it never took long before one or both sides started acting in exactly the way you described. The belligerent, disrespectful, and harsh tactics were not only off the charts by any standards, but also studied, coached, and practiced.
I learned a helpful method for stopping abuse in its tracks one day when working with a client who became upset at my partner and I for being late to a training session (5 minutes—he had given us wrong directions). Our client started screaming and cursing at us with a level of intensity I had never experienced before. I was shocked and speechless. My partner wasn’t. He stopped the harangue at about the fifth sentence and explained to our client that he would never work with someone who treated him this way. This caught our client by surprise.
My partner then stated that, based on the cursing and threats and abuse, he assumed the fellow didn’t want to work with us any longer either—because these were obviously the kind of things you said to someone you were firing—certainly not someone you wanted to collaborate with on a long-term project. My partner then picked up a phone and explained that he would now call the client’s boss and explain that he would love to continue working with their company, but his sensibilities prevented him from working with someone who cursed and threatened him. He then quoted exactly from what our client had said, taking care to match his tone and volume. Our client turned white as a sheet, apologized, and never abused us again—despite the fact that he routinely abused others.
This particular strategy falls under the category of “If you name the game, you don’t have to play it.” Here’s how it works. If you don’t already have ground rules about how you treat each other during negotiations, set them up as the negotiations unfold. Start, not by negotiating the contract, but by negotiating the negotiations. If you don’t clarify what you’ll allow and what you won’t, the forum can become enormously hostile, unprofessional, and completely out of the range of what is acceptable at work every day. Negotiations should model professional treatment, not abuse it at every turn.
This calls for clear descriptions of the behaviors that you believe are out of bounds. You suggested that people make accusations, threats, and unreasonable requests. I once worked in a healthcare system where certain professionals were accused of doing that very thing. A legal team sat down with those who felt victimized, created a long list of unacceptable, and very specific behaviors, and then had everyone sign a code of conduct that outlawed accusations, threats, and unreasonable requests. Nobody fought the list. How can you? Nobody reserved the right to use curse words—it’s sort of indefensible. Nobody held on to the idea that it was okay to shout threats at another person. These behaviors can’t stand the light of day.
If you can’t negotiate the negotiations in a formal way, do it on the fly. As my partner did, stop the other person in mid-abuse and point out the problem. Remain calm and professional, but simply don’t accept the mistreatment. Also, don’t use this tool willy-nilly. Choose your show-stopping behaviors carefully, and then take care to plant a flag every time the behavior is manifested. Gather strength in numbers. Sit down with your colleagues and jointly identify what is and isn’t acceptable and then support each other as you stand up for what is professional and acceptable. Nobody should have to go to work and worry about being verbally abused, threatened, mistreated, or otherwise put at risk. Negotiations should be no exception.