Updated: Jan 24
As a professional negotiator, I like to think that I have experienced the extremes of human behaviour that you would ever see in a business context.
At various points in my career I have been offered bribes, sworn at, shouted at, threatened with litigation and, on one memorable occasion, had my counter-party speculate as to whether my mother was proud of me (just to be clear, she is).
Colourful behaviour in the negotiating room and in high-stakes business conversations is nothing new. Whether we think of Margaret Thatcher swinging her handbag or Khrushchev beating the table with his shoe at the UN, history is replete with big characters stepping outside social norms to advance their point or achieve a particular objective.
I do a lot of coaching work in this area: helping clients understand how conversations can become emotive, differentiating "in control" from "out of control" behaviours, and developing the personal resilience required to navigate the stresses that such behaviours can create.
Thinking of negotiation specifically, older negotiation training methodologies actively encouraged students to act rudely (e.g. rolling eyes, raising voices, packing the room with angry-looking colleagues) as a means of emphasising power and encouraging concessions. Anybody who has been on the receiving end of these behaviours will testify that this approach can be effective in certain circumstances.
Offering up this reflection to a recent client, I was challenged on why I did not advocate these tactics in my negotiation courses, merely offering counter strategies.
The response I gave was that such behaviour was only really effective in one-off win-lose transactions and was likely to create more problems than opportunities in the type of complex B2B negotiations my client was engaged in.
Whilst that was accurate, a more authentic response would have been: do you really want to be that kind of person?
In this article, I would like to take a light-hearted look at the three most common types of "difficult people" that I had to navigate as a commercial negotiator and share how you can deal successfully with them.
The Alpha Male
"The thing you need to know about me Gareth, is that I'm not intimidated anyone or anything", smiled the Procurement Director as he lent back in his chair, legs splayed at an increasingly obtuse angle. He was flanked by two junior colleagues who looked on with a clear sense of embarrassment and unease.
The first thing to understand about Alpha Males is that they love to share that they consider themselves Alpha Males and will do this at the slightest trigger.
In this case, an uneventful introductory meeting had concluded with me asking for a local hotel recommendation. Cue a short monologue on how the local Holiday Inn Express was in "a bit of a tough area, but that doesn't phase me" and the subsequent puffed-up chest and pineapples-for-balls body language combination.
You do not need to be Sigmund Freud to interpret the signals being sent here and it was no surprise to see that this Alpha later deployed table-banging, shouting and URGENT EMAILS WRITTEN IN CAPITALS as part of his routine communication style with suppliers, irrespective of whether he held any negotiating power or not.
I guess when all you have is a hammer, the whole world starts to look like one big nail.
Whilst obnoxious behaviour in a counterparty is annoying for you, it may well be equally infuriating for the Alpha's colleagues, which can present a source of negotiation opportunity.
Dealing with an Alpha? Try building rapport with their direct reports (and if possible their peers or line management) and look out for signals that they share your antipathy toward their boss. At a minimum, a disgruntled team can be a great source of information and, if they do ever utter the telling words "my boss is a dick", you will know that you have established a level of personal trust that could be invaluable in future negotiations.
In face-to-face interactions, be very aware of your own tone and avoid the temptation to either respond to aggressive behaviour in kind or to make concessions purely to placate the Alpha: this will just encourage more bad behaviour!
The Hand of the King
The Hand does not like thinking or acting independently, but acts purely as an agent of their line manager, the King. Relaying the wisdom of the King is an important job as the King (i) is always right about everything, and (ii) should only ever be communicated with via the Hand.
You will definitely know a Hand and they are a nightmare as either colleagues or negotiation partners.
If the Game of Thrones analogy does not resonate, think about Dorothy's experience with the Emerald City door staff. Want to see the Great Oz? Not in those trainers pal.
The Hand is often fascinated by corporate politics and a large percentage of what they say will be sharing what the King thinks about a certain topic, often settling internal debates or ending negotiation sessions with "I'll ask him/her and see what he/she says". If decision-making authority has been delegated to the Hand, they are often reluctant to admit it.
Aside from the obvious trust and authenticity issues that arise when dealing with somebody who essentially just acts as a mouthpiece, there are practical negotiation challenges that this behaviour presents.
Negotiating with a Hand? If at all possible, find a way to engage with the real source of power in the negotiation; this will save you time and remove an unproductive middle man from the dialogue. Networking via senior colleagues in your business or even reaching out over LinkedIn can provide channels to connect that will leave the Hand feeling less like you have "gone over their head".
Work with a Hand? Build your network so that you can work around them in a non-threatening way.
The Under Pressure
Whether you are dealing with a Hand, an Alpha or an FMCG buyer who is using flat track bully tactics from the 1970s, it is important to realise that you are usually dealing with people who are in control of their behaviour.
They are choosing to behave in a certain way and will likely be used to (or even at peace with) the consequences of those unpleasant behaviours.
But what about when we encounter people who are not in full control of their own behaviour?
The most extreme behaviour I ever saw in a negotiation involved somebody who bellowed the F-word, karate chopped the table and then sat hyper-ventilating for a number of uncomfortable moments before sincerely apologising for how they had acted.
Negotiation is a stressful activity for many and it therefore shouldn't be a surprise to see the symptoms of stress-related illness (e.g. irritability) manifesting in those situations.
Many of my coaching clients initially state a goal like "I want to be a better negotiator", but end up in an exploration of the difficult emotions that hard conversations can provoke, and what steps might be taken to manage these emotions in a more resilient way.
Negotiating with somebody under extreme pressure? Remember that they are ultimately responsible for their own behaviour, but also that they might be struggling and deserving of a little kindness.