Managing Conflict In Negotiation

Having spent a career in negotiation, managing conflict has become part of my life. I’ve been on the receiving end of screaming, swearing, and threats of physical violence. Conflict is inevitable in negotiations. It won’t happen all the time, but it will happen some of the time. So when conflict in negotiation arises, what do you do next?

The first time someone ever screamed at me in a negotiation it came as a shock, but in retrospect, I should/could have seen it coming a mile away. Generally speaking, outbursts of rage don’t just happen. Usually there’s a buildup. There are some solid reasons why you would want to build up anger in someone in a negotiation and force them into snapping, but I’ll save that for another post on emotional control. For now, let’s focus on how to recognize anger building and how to ‘manage’ the conflict when it happens.

Conflict tends to brew like a storm in the distance. You can see the clouds get dark and the big clouds start to roll in and when the storm hits, it’s difficult to manage the downpour. Recognizing the signs of it coming is the key in most conflict situations. If you can see it coming, you can slow it down and address it. Sometimes conflict is easy to see coming. I used to have a supplier that would get really red in the face and you knew that he was getting close to breaking point. But often it takes a keen eye. Some of the things you should look for are:

  • Slowing down speech pattern
  • Lack of engagement in discussion or stopping talking all together
  • Leaning back and crossing of arms (a classic)
  • Rapid tapping of fingers or pens
  • Pushing away from the table

When you start to see this kind of behaviour happening, in my experience, it’s best to immediately address the issue by asking an open-ended question like:

“I feel like I may not be communicating something well or something may not be sitting well with you. What are the challenges you’re having with what we’ve discussed thus far?”

It is critical that you ask this question, because if you identify conflict and don’t address it, it just festers until it becomes a giant open wound in the negotiation that cannot be healed. Continue to ask probing questions until you get to the root cause of whatever is bothering the person you’re negotiating with. Only once you get to the root cause can you begin to address the issue effectively.

“But what happens if you don’t see it coming and someone just blows up?”

Good question!

My rule of thumb is to let them blow up! Give them the opportunity to voice their concerns, and if need be, scream and shout. Often times, the person you’re negotiating with may not be upset at you, but may be upset at the situation. It’s critical that you stop, let them blow off steam, and listen. Then, once they’re finished and you’ve given them time, follow the same process as before. Ask the open ended then probing questions to get to the bottom of their issue.

Conflict is inevitable in negotiations. Learning to recognize it, identifying the root cause, and addressing the root cause is the key to ‘managing’ it.