— August 9, 2019
I have written quite a bit about how to sharpen you and your team’s professional negotiation skills to close larger deals, faster. However, there are many times professionals lose otherwise quality deals because the seller, the buyer or both, can’t keep their calm when the discussion becomes tense. We have recently seen a client get so emotional in a discussion that the other side would have walked away had cooler heads not prevailed.
Rudyard Kipling talked about this as a virtue in his famous poem If: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Great aspiration, but how to accomplish this with rude, inflexible and humorless negotiators? What if they are even downright nasty? Consider this scene:
The chief negotiator for Dewey, Cheatum and Howe is sarcastic and condescending. In the middle of a tense negotiation, he says: “Gee. Harvey, I’d make this offer if I thought you and your team could understand it.” He is a nasty piece of work. “Arrogant” and “obnoxious” come to mind. Plus, he fails at personal grooming. Add “offensive” to the mix.
Perhaps I’m exaggerting to make the point but what should you do if confronted by such a scenario? The natural inclination is to tell the person off. But being the smart negotiator that you are, you say to your team, “SO WHAT?” Yes, you would rather do business with people who are pleasant. Yes, you would rather do business with people who are not rude and arrogant. Who wouldn’t? But if you’re doing business with someone who is annoying or mean-spirited, stay cool and focus on the merits of the transaction.
Keep Your Focus
I am not advocating for avoiding minor conflict, as heathy disagreement is a necessary part of the negotiation process. Perhaps the individual in question is truly unreasonable or mean-spirited – such people exist. However, any worthy negotiator on the other side—although we like to refer to them as “business partners” or “customers”—will attempt to recognize and understand your strengths and weaknesses early in a negotiation. From that point on, they will try to take advantage of your weaknesses and get around your strengths.
The key point here is to always keep your emotions in check and strictly focus on the merits of the transaction. Ask yourself: “Does this deal make sense for both parties?” If the answer is “yes,” then go about your business and make the best deal for yourself and your company. Remember, as long as the deal makes business sense for them also, they would look very bad to their peers and superiors if they didn’t get it done. Or, to put this a different way, concentrate on the merits of the deal, not on the behavior of the person on the other side. (Footnote: Of course, there are limitation when the other side “crosses the line” by going beyond merely rude to clearly offensive, in which case you need to judge how and when to bring it to their and their management’s attention.)
It’s Both What You Say and How You Say It!
Often—in negotiations as in our personal lives—it is not what you say, but how you say it. Our interpretation of words in a specific situation and the way we respond to them depends on our experiences, values, and emotions. Sometimes people use different words to mean the same thing. However, many words carry loaded overtones, connotations that are different from their dictionary meanings.
For example, the words “cheap” and “thrifty” have the same denotation (dictionary meaning): frugal. But wouldn’t you rather be called thrifty than cheap during a negotiation? (Or at any time, for that matter!) Cheap has a negative connotation of “tight-fisted”, while thrifty has the positive connotation of “wisely economical”. Similarly, the words “stubborn” and “resolute” both mean persistent, but stubborn carries a negative connotation of “obstinate” and “pigheaded,” while resolute carries a positive connotation of “purposeful” or “resolved.”
As a negotiator, it’s important to be sensitive to the use of words, otherwise you run the risk of offending someone. More importantly, their behavior toward you may conform to the negative tone you’ve set and you won’t have a clue why! One of the best ways to not lose your cool is to never give the other person a reason to be upset in the first place.
Sometimes, personalities simply don’t mesh for a myriad of reasons. Following the principles outlined in my book Negotiate Wisely in Business & Technology, you can reconfigure the negotiating team with compatible personalities. This alone can improve your odds of eventual success.
One final thought
When all else fails, it may be worthwhile to find a way to relieve the pressure during a tense negotiation. This can come in two forms: planning events during the negotiation and specfically, within a tough meeting to change the tone. Ways to relieve the pressure include social activities, informal meetings, off-hour activities, and humor. Changing the environment and getting away from the business conference room can be a very effective way to improve a situation that’s gotten testy under the pressure of getting the deal done.
Within a meeting, relieving the pressure may involve taking a break or the use of humor. Assuming you are one of those people who can deliver an amusing (non-offensive) line, this can be a great way to get everyone back to a more positive mindset. I agree with actor Ted Danson’s comment, “Humor can bring people under the tent. And a good joke can deflect some of the intensity surrounding a serious subject.”
I wish you great success in keeping your cool and succeeding in all your negotiation environments.