A fellow lawyer once described an opponent as having two distinct styles, "aggressive… and very aggressive".
We have all come across them. Perhaps we are one of them. Negotiators whose style is confrontational, intransigent, domineering and, in some cases, even aggressive. And the reason is that these tactics can sometimes be effective. While we may like to think that we would hold firm, research has shown that there is a tendency for people to back down and make concessions to tough negotiators to avoid confrontation or to try and preserve a relationship.
But while aggressive tactics might provide a short term win, they are high risk: there is an increased possibility of the negotiations failing; creative solutions to a problem which might be beneficial to all parties are less likely to be explored; and they potentially damage the ongoing relationship between the parties.
So what can we do when faced with a difficult opponent?
1. Set boundaries. If proposals or behaviour are unacceptable, make that clear while indicating that you are prepared to continue negotiating if they are prepared to change their position or behaviour: "What you are proposing is not something I can agree. However, I am happy to continue talking if you are prepare to consider other solutions".
2. Create some time and space. When faced with aggressive tactics, fear and anger are common responses and could push us into making judgements we might later regret. So take a break from the negotiation. Apart from allowing tempers to cool, this will also give time for reflection on the issues raised and perhaps to get some advice before going back to the negotiation.
3. Try to find out why they are being difficult. Is it their style or is their approach dictated by external factors (eg the demands of a difficult client or advice from their in-house lawyer)? Ask them why they are being intransigent. If there is a reason, explore whether there is room for manoeuvre within those constraints: "Let me see if I can come up with a proposal which meets your lawyers' concerns". By acknowledging their difficulty and attempting to solve it, you may disarm them.
4. Involve other people. It may be worth getting a sense check on your position (and theirs) by involving colleagues and suggesting that your opponent does the same.
5. Saving Face. The more entrenched the position, the more difficult it may be for the other side to back down from a position, even when offered a reasonable agreement and particularly if they are reporting to a client or boss. In these circumstances you need to explore ways of allowing the other side to save face. Provide some options so that they feel that they are involved in reaching a decision. For example, over the venue for a meeting, the wording of a clause or agreement or the timing of payments.
6. Finally, be prepared to walk away. Prior to any negotiation you should have a clear idea of what academics refer to as your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). In other words, if you can't reach an agreement, what is your best alternative course of action and what is the value of that. If you know this, you are less likely to be pressured into accepting a disadvantageous deal and more able to stand firm.
For a more in depth discussion of this topic, I recommend "Dealing with Difficult People", a special report by the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation.
This blog post was written by Cameron Scott, a senior member of the CDC team, former magic circle partner, barrister and a graduate of the Ashridge Business School Advanced Management Programme. Cameron has spent over 25 years' as a lawyer both in private practice and in-house and has significant experience of leading teams of professionals, delivering legal projects and dealing with the personal and professional challenges faced by senior lawyers.
The Client Development Centre has been working with in house teams for over ten years. Please contact Cameron if you would like to discuss how we can support you and your team.