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Negotiating with the Dark Side: Business Bullies

We’ve all encountered bullies in our lives. Whether it was on the playground as kids, or later in life at work, they come in all shapes and sizes. Some will confront you head-on and give you the proverbial punch to the face. While others are passive-aggressive, finding a more indirect way to knock you down.

Bullies are a pain in the ass, but we must learn to deal with them. This is especially true when they are sitting on the other side of the negotiation table. You must find a way to get a to a deal with someone who lies and schemes, and rarely listens (and who also finds pleasure in punching you in the face!).

What’s the best method in dealing with the bully on the playground? Well, if we take a quick look into psychology 101 behind the ‘why,’ it will help you understand how.

Bullies (no matter the age) typically lack personal awareness, have low self-esteem, and need to feel in charge of others. They usually have been bullied themselves from a young age and are taking out that aggression on others. So how does this play out at the table?

First, I would suggest confronting them head-on. The majority of the bullies back down a bit if you challenge or stand up to them. But if they don’t, and know they have the upper hand, i.e., a sole source supplier, they may never back down. And sometimes, it’s not the best business decision either to confront them head-on either.

So what are other options and best practices aside confrontation? Well, you have to address the underlying psychological issues at hand.

  1. Self-awareness: Discuss the matter by gently bringing up what the perception of them is in the marketplace or internal to your company.
  2. Self-esteem: Make sure they feel like they are heard and give compliments. Quickly validate what they are saying by saying, ‘it sounds like you are telling me’ to review what they said.
  3. Feeling in charge:  Always give the illusion of control to them. You can do this by asking simple “how” questions. You can also ask questions you know will elicit a “no” response, giving them the illusion or feeling of control.

Now, this only works if you can control your reactions during negotiations. If you are like me and you can feel your blood boil when somebody lies or uses other bully tactics during negotiations, you must prepare yourself for battle (with yourself). That’s where the practicing of these tactics, so they are second nature, is critical.

But what if you don’t have time to prepare, or the negotiations are a surprise? Say the supplier has started to pressure your business partners, and they add you to a last-minute conversation? This is when you need to learn to buy yourself time (to calm down, of course). How?

Based on recent training I had with the Black Swan Group (full of crisis and hostage negotiators), the answer is a simple tactic called ‘mirroring’, also called isopraxism. While mirroring is usually associated with the imitation of non-verbal cues, this type of mirroring is focused on language. All you need to do is say or repeat the last couple of words/ideas they have spoken with a questioning tone.

Effectively, this deflects the conversation back to the bully. It makes them explain what they are saying, thus buying you time. And putting it in a question format is non-confrontational. It’s a fantastic approach once you have it mastered. But I will caution that it does take some time to learn. So, practice with your spouse, kids, or other family members that drive you insane.

Last, document the hell out of everything. I once had a negotiation whereby the supplier said, ‘you’ve never asked me for that!’ when confronted with their boss on the line. The fact was that I had three phone conversations and sent five separate emails with this request. Three of which stated, ‘To recap our call we discussed X.’ Point being, it’s a heck of a lot harder to gaslight someone, when you have proof to the contrary.

If all else fails, offer to buy them a drink outside of work. Or send a small gift to gain favor. It’s harder to be a bully when you’ve gotten to meet someone out of the office or have received a nice gift. Reciprocity is a fantastic thing!