Bully For You

Turn the tables on intimidators.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the October 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

As a callow young law student, I spent one summer as an intern at the Park Avenue offices of a huge corporate law firm. One afternoon, I happened to look in on the firm's most polished partner. Hovering over his speakerphone, the courtly eminence looked so mad, you could have fried an egg on his bald spot. With his bared teeth inches from the receiver, he hissed again and again, "You're making me hang up on you!" This was a master intimidator in action, and he left me wondering how I would deal with him if I had to.

Intimidation does work. It catalyzes powerful and primitive emotions, sabotaging your ability to think clearly. Usually, the side being cornered will be so aggravated, frightened or shamed that they'll simply cave in. They'll make a deal they'll later regret.

Intimidation can also be subtle--those little patronizing gestures from the other side that work your last nerve. Because it's so personal, even seasoned deal-makers are piqued. Thus, a little self-awareness is your best early warning system. Know who gets under your skin. Know how you normally react. And know there are plenty of ways to outfox bullies at the bargaining table. These include:

1. Keeping cool. Above all, relax. You know your triggers. Pause. Breathe deeply. A level head is where self-defense begins.

If you're dealing with card-carrying lunatics, remind yourself they're the ones with personality disorders. Ignore their theatrics. If they keep interrupting, politely ask them to stop. Consider staging tactful timeouts--for example, to handle another appointment you suddenly remember. It may take the self-control of a saint, but don't let the confrontation escalate. It almost always turns out to be counterproductive.

On the other hand, don't allow experts, business leaders or the rich and famous to psych you out. Many so-called authorities have big hats--but no cows. Strip away the smoke and mirrors, and you'll see human beings who can be just as inept, lazy or ignorant as anyone else.

2. Refocusing on the issues. Remember, you're making a business deal. Intimidation isn't the issue. Prices, services, goods, time periods and the like--these are the issues. No matter how many times you have to do it, keep bringing the discussion back to what's really important. Unless you seek an ongoing working relationship with your opponent, personalities are secondary.

3. Slowing it down. Often, you can recapture the flag by simply slowing down. Wait before you answer. Repeat what you've already talked about one more time. Whip out a pad of paper and start taking notes. Intimidators prefer to hustle you into an agreement. Don't let them. You set the pace.

Here's a more powerful technique: As a young attorney, I was often anxious about negotiating with lawyers who were more experienced. Then I learned a magic mantra: "I'll think it over and get back to you." It's a graceful way to buy time to get the answers you need.

4. Asking questions. Finally, know that questions are more powerful than answers. Want to try a little deal-making judo? You ask the questions. Favor open-ended ones, the kind that can't be answered with a simple yes or no. ("What do you mean when you say this?" "How did you come to that?" "Why do you think such-and-such is so important?")

The answers will reveal a lot about the other side's assumptions, expertise and integrity. You'll find openings that lead to the creative solutions you seek. And of course, once you've gotten your opponent explaining and discussing, you've turned the tables; he's no longer intimidating--he's negotiating.

A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size (Owl Books/Henry Holt). You can reach him at

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