(Un)Successful Negotiating: How To Lose Friends And Turn Off Colleagues

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Negotiation and civility are not and should not be mutually exclusive. And, yet, even some of those who agree with that haven’t internalized that principle. Whenever our own thinking brings us back to this pet peeve, we think of a remarkable colleague, one no longer with us. Brilliant and direct, he held strongly developed views and expressed them in a blunt way. Yet, he was never acerbic. Put differently, he had a remarkable ability: to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

Does anyone really think that telling someone on the other side of a deal: “No one has ever asked for that before, you are being ridiculous,” will bring about the desired result? To our thinking, there are two possibilities. One is that the “ridiculous” proponent of the unprecedented bargaining request plain simply didn’t understand what she or he was asking for. The other possibility, the far more likely one, is that the proponent’s experience is quite different. She or he has heard the request before and likely has made the request, sometimes or even many times, with a successful result. Whichever is the case, directly or impliedly insulting your across-the-table (telephone, email) colleague isn’t likely to be a convincing argument. Basically, it is an ad hominem attack and reveals more about the speaker than the target.

Many readers have heard the following (and, now, all readers will have heard the following). “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bull….” Responding to a negotiating request, even a clearly unacceptable one, with an ad hominem response reveals that the attacker can’t explain “why” something is unacceptable and has resorted to a lashing-out response. How sad.

There are other examples of this form of unpleasant, unnecessary, and unproductive negotiating behavior, none of which, in Dale Carnegie’s words, will win friends and influence people. Try this negotiating statement: “Stop making this complicated, it is really simple – you are just wasting my time.” Readers should know that by presenting that example, Ruminations is making a rhetorical point. So, we won’t say much more than that those who propel such attempted insults reveal more about their own understanding, actually the lack thereof, than about that of their target.

We can’t endorse everything H. L. Mencken has ever said or written (and, in fact, we find some of those words repulsive), that doesn’t mean that everything out of his mouth is worthless. Today, we’re thinking about the following words from him: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” That should be humbling.

We are willing to go out on a limb when saying that there is no reader who hasn’t taken a multiple choice test, actually tons of them. Don’t we feel best when we can look at all (typically four) choices and know, not only which one is correct, but also why the others are wrong? How about striving for that in our negotiations? How about understanding why our counterparts are wrong instead of wheeling out the: “You must be wrong because I never heard that before. After all, I have heard everything before, starting at the age of one. And, what is more, since I never heard that before, I don’t even have to think about it.”

As to the second implicit insult, Ruminations directs you to the following bumper sticker: “Hire a teenager today while he stills knows everything.”

There is a word for all of this. It is “hubris.” This comes from Greek tragedy and translates to excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis, the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall. [Thank you, Google search feature.]

From today on, let’s strive for learning from each other and let’s stop displaying our defensive ignorance. The deals will still get done. It is perfectly proper to say “No” to a negotiation request. It isn’t proper to say that obliquely by trying to ridicule or belittle the requester. It demeans the speaker far more than the target.



  1. floridalegal says

    This all comes down to “there are deal makers and deals breakers” We have all seen the breakers. Business isn’t litigation. Your client want’s to make a deal. Your job is to negotiate the best deal for your client. In the end, it is not the attorney’s place to let their desire to bludgeon opposing counsel blow up the business deal. Unfortunately, there are occasions where this is lost and it is time for the attorney’s to leave the room so that the business people can make the deal.

  2. Whenever I encounter a comment where my first instinct is to reply, “I’ve never heard that one before”, or “no one has ever asked for that before” or I want to make an ad hominem attack, I take a second and assume I misunderstood the other side’s intent (or, if I’m being honest, more likely, I assume the other side did not ask the question the right way) and ask for them to clarify their request.

    I ask, “What did you mean with that comment?”, or “What is your goal when you say ____?” The ensuing dialogue usually clears things up for both sides and allows us to address the substantive issue in short order.

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