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Copyright © Robert T J Marshall.

All rights reserved.

Dealing with difficult people

By Robert Marshall

We’ve all met them: the “awkward Get the fundamentals right:
squad”. They dig in, talk tough, make negotiation, communications, behaviour
statements about what they will and
won’t accept, and then argue that their 1. Change how you negotiate
needs and ideas should prevail.
The biggest single cause of negotiation failure
Almost everyone has the capacity to behave
is people arguing about what they will and
like this and we’ve probably all done it at some
won’t accept. Indeed, this approach (it’s called
point. Colleagues, suppliers, customers,
‘positional bargaining’) has become so firmly
friends, partners and children can all be
established as the ‘norm’ in most Western
stubborn and unyielding at times. So what is it
societies that many of us do it without even
that sometimes drives people to behave like
this and – more importantly – what can we do
about it?
But there’s a considerable weight of research
and experience to show that digging in,
What do we mean, “difficult”? refusing to change your position and arguing
the other person down causes real problems: it
Avoiding evaluation takes too long, has a low success rate, and
Sometimes people make demands and try to damages relationships and reputations.
impose their ideas on others because they Launched in the 1970s, the Harvard Law
believe they have identified the best solution School’s Negotiation Project has drawn some
(for them). They think that by avoiding a proper simple and startling conclusions that have
debate and evaluation of other possible formed the basis of an entirely new approach
solutions, their idea will prevail. to negotiation, now increasingly used by
professional negotiators, mediators and those
Positional bargaining who work in conflict resolution. The founders of
Difficult people often negotiate using old- the Harvard project – William Ury and Roger
fashioned ‘positional bargaining’ – a technique Fisher – called their new model ‘Principled
based on saying what they will accept, then Negotiation’.
arguing the other person down, until they
either give in or walk away.
Have an alternative
Resisting change Principled Negotiation theory says that if you
People can be difficult if they perceive that a don’t have a ‘plan B’ (Ury and Fisher called it
change is imminent that will not be in their best their ‘BATNA’, or Best Alternative To
interests. Negotiated Agreement), you’re unlikely to be in
a strong position in the negotiation. So think in
advance about what you’ll do if you really can’t
Change resistance reach agreement with the other party: will you
There are only three sets of reasons why
try to find another supplier elsewhere? Ask
people resist change.
your boss to talk to their boss? Delay the
1. They don’t understand the change that’s project for now? Whatever it is, it needs to be
being proposed. To overcome this type of something that you really would do – the ‘next
resistance, you’ll need to explain carefully best thing’ to the negotiated agreement you’d
and clearly, then check for agreement. been hoping for.
2. They understand, but don’t agree. You’ll
need to explore their interests and In any negotiation, the person with the
concerns, explain the reasons and strongest BATNA is very likely to have the
benefits to them. Maybe they have an
upper hand, but you don’t have to tell the other
even better idea!
3. They don’t trust you. There’s no point in party what your BATNA is and, indeed, doing
trying to influence people who don’t trust so can sometimes jeopardise the negotiation if
you. You’ll need to build trust and it makes them feel that you’re threatening
empathy first, then try again to influence them.
the outcome.
Copyright © Robert T J Marshall.
Principled Negotiation All rights reserved.

1. Separate people from problems

Criticising people, blaming them for what’s happened in the past and making assumptions about how they’ll
behave in the future are all unhelpful starting points for a negotiation. What’s actually needed is a radically
different mindset, in which you engage with the other party as fellow problem solvers, rather than viewing
them as the enemy. Personally, I achieve this by imagining a piece of grass with a fence down the middle: on
one side of the fence I put all the people (from our ‘side’ and theirs), and on the other side I put all the
problems and issues that we’ll need to discuss and resolve (again, mine and theirs).
2. Focus on interests, not on positions
Avoid positional statements, ask lots of questions instead, and listen carefully to the answers. Ask what’s
important to them – what it is they’re hoping to achieve through the negotiation, and tell them what matters to
you too. Be open and honest, share your concerns and ideas, and insist that they do the same.
Dealing with a positional statement (e.g. “that’s our final offer” or “we’re not prepared to discuss it”) is best
done by asking a question. Among the most powerful questions you can ask are “why?”, “what makes that
fair?” and “so tell me how that might work?”. Ask your question, and wait for them to answer it. If there’s a long
silence after you’ve asked your question, that’s just fine.
3. Create lots of possibilities before deciding what to do
Too often people go into a negotiation convinced that they already know the best solution or outcome – so the
purpose of the negotiation then becomes one of persuading the other person to agree to your plan.
That approach assumes that there’s no better solution than yours, but it’s actually entirely possible that some
smarter idea might emerge during the negotiation. So the negotiation needs to be focused on creating lots of
ideas and possibilities, then exploring these together and agreeing on which is best: not just best for you, or
best for them, but the best and most balanced solution to your jointly-owned set of requirements, issues or
4. Insist on an outcome based on some kind of objective criteria
If you agree to something then later on find out it’s not fair (for example, that you’ve paid far too much), it can
ruin the future relationship between the parties.
You need to insist on having some way of judging the fairness of what’s being proposed, so ask some more
questions: “what do other organisations like ours do in this situation?”, “what did we do last time, and did it –
with hindsight – seem fair?”, “where can we find out what other people pay for similar services?”.

2. Understand how we communicate But the words matter most…don’t they?

If you believe that, try this simple experiment.
It’s almost too easy nowadays to send off an Sit down with a DVD of a film you’ve not seen
email when you want someone to do before, but watch it with the sound turned off.
something (or just to tell them how you feel) You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at how
and it’s equally easy to ignore or easily you can follow the storyline, the ebb and
misunderstand their disembodied response. flow of the human relationships, who the
We’ve all had emails that include a ‘winking goodies and baddies are, and where the
eye’ or other emoticons: annoyingly blunt romantic interest lies. Try that with sound but
instruments, and no substitute for the subtlety no pictures and you’ll soon be struggling to
of a live emotional signal. Similarly, a text keep up with the subtleties of the plot.
message is nothing more than a hasty, one-
way communication - or at best a series of
them. The ‘Rule of Four’
Some of the ‘cues’ we get from other people are
Trouble is, communication between people subtle and can sometimes be misinterpreted, so
isn’t really as simple as that. In conversation, don’t base your assessment of someone on a
we are, in fact, simultaneously doing three single cue. You need FOUR, self-consistent
pieces of information to make a secure
quite distinct things:
judgement, e.g.
• Words
(1) Listening to and understanding the words • Voice tone
that are being said • Eye movements
(2) Gauging the tone in which they are being • Hand gestures
said – timidly, angrily, excitedly, with • ‘Gut’ feeling
concern, or whatever • Body language
(3) Gathering up lots of non-verbal information • Previous history
too, from the way people are sitting or
standing, their facial expressions, and the
movements of their hands and eyes. If you need more proof, consider this: the
words “thank you” in an email are always a
benign and friendly gesture of appreciation.
But now imagine the same words being
Copyright © Robert T J Marshall.
All rights reserved.

spoken to you with a voice full of anger and that we’re stupid, or perhaps that we’ve not
sarcasm, or alternatively with the curt and made enough effort. For others, injustice and
disapproving tone that a stern head-teacher unfairness make their blood boil. If you don’t
might use to silence a child who’s been talking know about your ‘hot buttons’ then you’ll be
during Assembly. It quickly becomes clear that vulnerable to other people making you angry
words on their own – stripped of the rich (and perhaps even irrational) just because
context provided by voice tone and body they’ve said the wrong thing to you. If you can
language – can be open to dangerous learn to moderate and control your reactions,
misinterpretation. you’re more likely to have the upper hand.

Words, tone, body A call to action

From an early age we spend a great deal of time
focused on words, and we understand the value of
teaching our children to read, write and develop To get better-equipped and genuinely skilled at
their vocabulary. Words are undoubtedly great for dealing with difficult people, you’ll need to
conveying simple, factual information. consider three different aspects of human
(1) interaction.
But according to behavioural psychologists , the
words we use count for as little as 7% of all the
communication that is going on in a face-to-face 1. Change how you negotiate
conversation, with the rest being attributable to the
Hard positional bargaining fails too often,
‘non-verbal cues’ that we pick up from voice tone
(38%) and body language (55%). because it starts with the premise “I want
victory”. Principled Negotiation starts with the
Prof. Albert Mehrabian’s highly influential research at the University premise “I want a wise outcome”. So think
of California in the 1960s proposed the weighting of 7%, 38%, 55%
(words, tone, body). The most recent research suggests that body
about how you negotiate, be open to criticism
language may be even more important, with weightings of about 7%, and improvement, try out some these ideas,
28%, 65%.
and help others to become better negotiators

2. Learn how we communicate

Realise that the words people use are just one
3. Learn to adapt your behaviour (sometimes small) facet of communication,
It’s important to understand the difference and don’t underestimate the impact of voice
between assertive and aggressive behaviours, tone, eye movements and body language.
because the latter creates conflict and
resistance, whilst the former can build new 3. Learn to adapt your behaviour
understandings and stronger relationships. Be assertive not aggressive, partially
Assertive people are especially good at synchronise your communication style, build
expressing their current feelings and stating trust and empathy, be willing to explore options
their future needs. and alternatives, and get to know your ‘hot
Building trust and empathy is an essential
precursor to any attempt at influencing the
outcome of a negotiation or the resolution of a
dispute, and various techniques exist that can Robert Marshall provides training, support and advice in
help to create that trust. In particular, difficult negotiation, conflict resolution and communications for a
wide range of private and public sector clients worldwide.
people are used to arguing for what they want, He has worked as Director of Research & Business
but are not used to people listening to them. Services at the University of East Anglia, Head of
So listen carefully, give them a proper hearing, Technology Transfer at the University of Cambridge, and
ask questions and explore mutual interests. before that in manufacturing management, research
management and as a quality manager.

‘Mirroring’ (i.e. partially matching your

Robert has many years of practical experience in the
communication style to theirs) will help to successful negotiation of commercial contracts and
highlight the similarities between the parties, agreements, and a long-standing professional interest in
rather than their differences. For instance, if the psychology of the workplace, staff motivation and
they are speaking more stridently or more dispute resolution. - - +44-(0)1359 242685
quietly than you are, modulate your own voice
to partly match theirs. Try smiling when they
smile, and use the same kind of words as they

It’s a good idea to learn about your own ‘hot

buttons’ – the things that make you angry or
incensed. For some of us, it’s the implication