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Dealing with challenging negotiators
September 3, 2020 Featured Article

We often enter negotiations with a new counterpart with excitement. Unfortunately, our high expectations are sometimes dashed when our new negotiating partner exhibits behavior that’s puzzling, upsetting, or downright bizarre. A trio of new articles by negotiation scholars offers advice that can help us respond effectively to bargaining partners who threaten to throw us off our game.

Good news about competitive negotiators

You are likely familiar with the abundant benefits of negotiating cooperatively—the opportunities for problem solving, mutual gains, and relationship building. So, you might be disappointed when you find yourself negotiating with counterparts who seem to be in it only for themselves. In fact, self-interested individuals may turn out to be ideal negotiating partners, according to a recent study by Sinem Acar-Burkay, Vidar Schei, and Luk Warlop of the University of South-Eastern Norway published in the journal Group Decision and Negotiation.

In their study, the researchers paired up business school students for a 25-minute negotiation exercise as buyer and seller. Several issues were at stake, with opportunities for mutually beneficial tradeoffs based on parties’ differing preferences. Participants assigned to the individualistic condition were told they should be concerned only about maximizing their own profit and should act purely out of self-interest. And participants in the cooperative condition were encouraged to maximize joint profit for both themselves and their counterpart. Some pairs were made up of two individualists, some included two cooperatives, and some were individualist-cooperative pairs.

We might have expected pairs of cooperatives to come out on top, but in fact, the mixed individualist-cooperative pairs achieved the best economic outcomes in the short term as well as the strongest long-term relational benefits, as measured by their desire to negotiate together in the future in a survey conducted seven months later.

The mixed-motive pairs excelled at both problem solving and relationship building. Their different motivations “brought out the best in the other member of the dyad,” the authors write, “creating an optimal mixture of cooperation and competition that drove [them] toward mutually beneficial agreements.” That is, the cooperators became less compliant, and the individualists more cooperative.

As these results remind us, cooperative and competitive behaviors complement each other in negotiation—both within individual negotiators and between negotiators with different motivations. Ideally, each negotiator will recognize the benefits of using both value-claiming and value-creating moves. But when you place a premium on cooperation, and your partner leans toward competition, you may find that your strengths rub off on each other to mutual benefit.

Detecting insincere negotiators

When launching a negotiation, we tend to assume that the other party is as eager to try to reach a deal as we are. In fact, that is not always the case: Individuals and organizations sometimes enter negotiations with ulterior motives and no intention of closing a deal, as researchers Polly Kang (the Wharton School), Krishnan S. Anand (University of Utah), Pnina Feldman (Boston University), and Maurice E. Schweitzer (the Wharton School) note in a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Companies sometimes enter partnership talks solely to acquire proprietary information about a competitor. A consumer might negotiate with a car salesperson simply to gather information and get an offer they can take to another dealership. And in 2017, Amazon lured 238 North American cities and regions into an auction for its second headquarters that later appeared to be aimed only at maximizing the online retailer’s tax incentives and government subsidies.

To insincere negotiators, negotiation is a tool for “gaining leverage by gathering information, stalling for time, blocking a competitor, or managing impressions,” write Kang and her team. They conducted experiments to get a better sense of what happens in a negotiation when one party has incentives to not reach agreement with the other. In one study, participants playing the buyer in a buyer-seller negotiation simulation had financial incentives to not reach an agreement with their assigned counterpart. Other buyers had incentives to reach an agreement that maximized their own profits. Sellers, meanwhile, were primed to be either suspicious or not suspicious of their counterpart’s motives.

Relative to sincere buyers, those who had incentives to be insincere engaged in more stalling tactics, such as deflecting questions and asking tangential questions, and they also prolonged the negotiation. Interestingly, while most insincere buyers (56%–61%) did not reach agreement, between 9% and 15% acted counter to their financial incentives and reached agreement anyway. It seems that even insincere negotiators are susceptible to the agreement bias—the common tendency to reach a deal even when we’d be better off with an impasse. Finally, sellers who were primed to be suspicious of their counterpart’s motives were more likely to exit the negotiation than those who were not.

In another experiment, Kang and her colleagues gave some participants the opportunity to gather information from a first negotiation to use in a second negotiation—thus making those negotiators in the first negotiation who were uninterested in reaching agreement insincere. In their first negotiation, the insincere negotiators prolonged talks and reached agreement less often than sincere negotiators, though some insincere negotiators still reached agreement. In a third experiment, negotiators who were encouraged to be suspicious of their counterpart’s motives asked more questions, were more assertive, and reached agreement less often than those who were not.

Clearly, insincere negotiators waste our time and money, and can lead us to miss out on genuine deals with other partners. How can we detect their ulterior motives? Be wary of those who slow a negotiation to a crawl or ask for sensitive information. Insincere negotiators may also make irrelevant statements, ramble, or mention constraints on their ability to reach agreement, Edy Glozman (Columbia Law School) and his colleagues found in a 2015 study.

There are also steps we can take to discourage insincere negotiators from wasting our time. In real estate negotiations, prospective buyers typically need to put down earnest money to solidify their intent to close a deal. In other realms, deposits, promises, and penalties might be contractually specified to ensure that negotiators are bargaining in good faith. Similarly, nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements can be used to protect you from bargainers whose aim is to gain privileged information from you. If you are concerned about being taken advantage of by an insincere negotiator, ask your lawyer to suggest protections specific to the context that you might employ to protect yourself or your organization.

Dealing with difficult personalities

At times, you may find yourself confronting a counterpart whose behavior or personality seems truly extreme and dysfunctional. An estimated 10% of working adults have “personality styles or behavioral tendencies that can make interactions with them especially challenging,” ranging from “odd idiosyncratic tendencies to full-blown personality disorders,” write Marc-Charles Ingerson and Kristen Bell DeTienne of Brigham Young University, Jill M. Hooley of Harvard University, and Nathan A. Black of the University of Iowa in a new article in the Negotiation Journal.

We all need to be wary of playing armchair psychologist and give negotiating counterparts the benefit of the doubt when their behavior seems irrational. Angry outbursts, sabotage, and other off-putting behaviors might be triggered by hidden constraints, personal struggles, or just a bad day. That said, an awareness of common difficult personality styles can help us understand a counterpart’s behavior at times. This knowledge may also help us decide whether a negotiation is worth pursuing and how we might adapt to the other party’s personality and behavior. Here’s an overview of four difficult styles.

1. Narcissistic personality disorder. People who score high on narcissism tend to view themselves as superior to others. Desiring admiration and lacking in empathy, they often have difficulty forming meaningful relationships. To impress others and build themselves up, they often brag or steal credit from others. Narcissistic individuals also often have desirable traits, including charm, leadership, and assertiveness. When negotiating with someone who brags, charms, and commands attention, it can be useful to challenge them to meet difficult goals that fuel their competitiveness and allow them to affirm their high status, write Ingerson and his coauthors. In addition, you may be able to gain their trust by establishing your competence and skill early in the negotiation, and by showing genuine concern for their welfare.

2. Antisocial personality disorder. Those diagnosed with this personality disorder (which is closely related to sociopathy and psychopathy) have a blatant disregard for others’ rights that manifests as rule breaking, criminal behavior, and deception. Perhaps surprisingly (or not), they often succeed in business. Pathological liars, people with this disorder are “extremely potent and cunning negotiators,” according to Ingerson and his coauthors. You would do well to avoid negotiating with these deceivers altogether; if you must, try approaching them as part of a team. People with this disorder tend to fear teams and unity, perceiving them as threatening, and may back down when facing them.

3. Borderline personality disorder. This pattern of psychological symptoms is marked by antagonism, low self-image, mistrust, and emotional outbursts. Due to their neediness and difficulty trusting others, people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder often lash out at others in anger and have intense, unstable relationships, according to Ingerson and his colleagues. To avoid overwhelming such individuals, keep the negotiating environment calm, methodical, and structured. Focus continually on building and maintaining trust with them throughout your negotiation. If they erupt in anger, express empathy, and apologize for any mistakes or perceived slights. But if their behavior is too erratic for you to bear, move on, if at all possible.

4. Passive-aggressive behavior. Viewing themselves as helpless victims, people engaging in passive-aggressive behavior conceal hostile and destructive acts beneath a façade of innocence. In organizations, hallmarks of passive-aggressiveness include procrastination, working slowly, and doing poor-quality work. When confronted with their obstructionism, passive-aggressive individuals blame others for making unreasonable demands and resist suggestions for improvement. If you are faced with seemingly passive-aggressive behavior from a counterpart in a negotiation, strive to be clear, direct, calm, and assertive, recommend Ingerson and his team. Try to reduce your counterpart’s anxiety by making them feel important and comfortable, praising them when they do well, and attempting to understand their perspective. Carefully document the negotiation, and make expectations and deadlines clear so that you can hold your counterpart accountable for their behavior.

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