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Head to Head

How to deal with difficult opponents

To paraphrase Tolstoy, "All happy deals resemble one another, but each unhappy deal is unhappy in its own way." It's almost always about the people. Show me a smooth negotiation, and I'll show you participants who are reasonable, polite and efficient. Show me your "deal from hell," and I'll show you participants who are flaky, paranoid, hysterical, abusive and/or all or some of the above.

For whatever reason, deal making often brings out the ugly side of commerce. At the drop of a hat, parties polarize, one side vilifying the other. Principal players are overcome by fear and greed. The old business and personal traumas surface. Egos clash as the insecure become blustery, then arrogant, then insufferable.Others bargain in the present but live in the past, as they act out dysfunctional family attitudes and early childhood neuroses.

The immature, tightly wound opponent (however manifested) is unavoidable. As with medicine, early screening and detection are key. Query: What vibe do you get from your opponent at first contact? Of course, some will fool you, but your gut is often smarter than you are. Think of that first phone call or meeting as a preview of coming attractions. Watch for goofy or unreasonable demands early on. Listen carefully to what their own professionals say about them-and especially look for that omnibus euphemism "difficult personality."

Occasionally, you'll have to kill a deal-not because it's a bad one, but because you know deep down that the other side is simply impossible. More often, your business interests will rule, and you'll have to suck it up, smile and haggle in good faith.

For starters, think of difficult negotiations not as a hassle but as a challenge. The experience will only make you better at handling others and better at handling yourself. Accept it. Do not become distracted by your opponent's antics, however outrageous. This is business. Stay focused on your goals and on the actual issues. Don't escalate hostilities, lest you get caught in a senseless cycle of verbal violence. Let it roll off you. After all, it's not about you; it's about them. You should also remember that "craziness" can be feigned as a tactic to manipulate you. If that's the case, consider calling your opponent on it, whether tactfully or bluntly.

As with most negotiations, it's best to begin by building trust, speaking to the other side's interests, and making some easy concessions first. The calm voice of reason can work wonders. With a little luck, you may bring them around. Finally, have some compassion. People that are difficult in business are probably difficult in life. After you shake on it, you can move on. But they still have to live with themselves.


A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, is author of Deal Power.

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Head to Head.

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