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How to Negotiate with Difficult People

By |September 17, 2020

I’m on the wrong side of customs in Australia, and my bags are still inside. I’m not interested in getting stranded or missing my connection, and I’m also not keen on wearing the same clothes for five days and brushing my teeth with the hotel-provided toothbrush.

Here’s how I got out of this jam: I’m here to sign up for the Stupid American of the Year Award.

But first: How did I get into this predicament to begin with?

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The airline person at the Salt Lake City airport where my day began assured me that my bags were checked all the way through to my final destination in Hamilton Island. When I found myself exiting the secure area in Sydney to change planes, I got a baaaaaad feeling.

I walk up to the lost luggage counter to inquire about my bags and am told in a voice dripping with how-stupid-could-you-possibly-be, “No. Just like in Los Angeles, you have to retrieve your bags and carry them through Customs and then to your connection. You can’t get back in.”

The agent then goes back to their magazine. Perfect.

Luckily for me, I had a few tricks up my sleeve.

Does your negotiation strategy fit their personality? Use this guide to  negotiate successfully with anyone »

1. Do a Cold Read

Right away, I stepped back out of the office and did a cold read. This automatically helped me get my negative emotions out of the way. There’s a great saying that goes like this: Give a speech when you’re angry and it will be the best speech you’ll ever regret. Negative thought processes limit our ability to negotiate.

Taking the lay of the land, I asked myself many questions. Is there a long line of frustrated people already unloading their complaints on the person I want to talk to? Do they look frustrated, busy, tired, or stressed? Have they been dealing with unhappy people all day? Are they pointedly not looking in my direction? (This is almost always the case with airline personnel and is a big sign it’s already been a tough day for them.)

Second, I know that as I approach a situation, the emotions and perceptions others have are both the biggest obstacles to what I want and also the best levers I can pull to get my goals.

You should know that, too.

What happens if you don’t set aside a few seconds for a cold read to settle yourself down? The already-tense airline representative will see you coming from a mile away. When you’re frustrated, it shows, and it’ll impede both them and you.

2. Know That Logic Is Dumb

Is my logical explanation of what I was told in Salt Lake City going to help? Absolutely not.

The most likely reaction would be something along the lines of: One stupid person listening to another stupid person does not add up to one person who should be excused from having to wait a very long time to pay for their mistakes.

A logical approach to a situation like this sends a clear message: that you think you’re smarter than they are. It’s akin to being talked down to.

No one anywhere is teaching anyone that presenting a logical argument is an emotionally intelligent way to accomplish anything. People make decisions based on what they care about. That makes all decision-making—by default—an emotionally driven process.

I know that the agent’s decision to help me will be an emotional one. Do they feel like it? If not, what will make them feel like it?

This is where Tactical Empathy™—or using empathy like a tool by proactively ensuring the other side understands you get where they’re coming from—can be particularly helpful.

3. Conduct an Accusation Audit™

A ridiculously powerful subset of Tactical Empathy is The Black Swan Group tool we refer to as the Accusation Audit.

When we wrote Never Split the Difference, we had no idea what a consistent game changer the Accusation Audit would prove to be (it’s in Chapter 3).

Here are the basics: Now that you’ve opened up your awareness to how they’re likely being hammered (i.e., your cold read), conduct an audit. What accusations or overreactions are you sincerely hoping they don’t make?

In my case, the airline agent might say that I’m being unreasonable, that I’m responsible for the mistake, which makes me ... irresponsible. They might secretly think that I’m blaming them and making their job more difficult.

Not sure where to get started with an Accusation Audit? Fortunately, I’ve got some go-to openings here. Feel free to add them to your list. And remember, if you don’t feel like you’re laying it on a little thick, you’re probably not laying it on thick enough.

I’m here to sign up for the Mistake of the Day Award, I say. Then I use Dynamic Silence™, keeping my mouth shut for a few minutes before continuing with this: I’m about to make your day incredibly difficult.

I already know these two openings were previously used to great effect by Brandon Voss to rebook a flight he’d missed. The airline clerk fell all over herself, cheerily proving to Brandon she could easily handle anything he threw at her. He ended up with the same class of seat with no change fees—and a much more convenient departure time. He actually ended up going home to cut his grass before he flew out.

I could also use one of my all-time favorites: Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I used this on a TSA guy in New Jersey once. Instead of throwing me completely out of the secure area—which has happened to me before—he walked me right back to the head of the line so I could immediately get back through.

If you’re approaching someone for the first time and anticipating resistance, use those predicted negatives and even amplify them in your opening statement. Most people avoid acknowledging negatives because they assume that doing so brings them to the forefront of their counterpart’s mind.

On the contrary, denials are what plant negatives. Labels™ defuse them. The introduction I went with—I’m here to sign up for the Mistake of the Day Award—is preemptive empathy and actually inoculates me from possible negative reactions.

Give it a try next time you can.

4. Don’t Be Discouraged by an Apparent Rejection

What if you do all of the above, come up with a dynamite negative Label, and find that your counterpart still reacts negatively—or doesn’t react at all?

Typically, if you’re calling out a negative in advance and your counterpart doesn’t react, it means that you need to go further.

If you’ve laid it on thick but you’re still being stonewalled, countering with a Label like this—It seems like I missed the mark here—can help end the stalemate.

On the flip side, if you start a negotiation on the right foot but notice that your counterpart is becoming more terse and aggressive as things progress—use Labels to identify unstated dynamics in an innocent way.

Saying It sounds like [insert variable] is bothering you in an inquisitive tone is a great way to uncover the emotional drivers that are creating roadblocks to agreement.

So, How Did My Adventure Turn Out?

Armed with some really bad directions to another office from the first person I originally contacted, I approached a door with no sign, no window, and a buzzer. I felt a little like it was the door to Oz where the guy slams the opening shut after shouting, No one gets in to see the Wizard!

I hit the next lady with a full-blown dose of I am so sorry, I’m here to sign up for the Stupid American of the Year Award!—yep, I ramped it up even more—in an upbeat and cheery mood. She sent me to go drink coffee in a charming coffee shop nearby and knocked herself out going through luggage and customs. Thirty minutes later, she delivered my bag back to me at the same doorway I found her at, and I made my connection in plenty of time.

The proactive defusing of negative emotions is one of the biggest game changers our clients are implementing. Do a cold read, follow it up with an Accusation Audit, and forget about logic doing anything to help you get your way.

And use Tactical Empathy generously. To borrow the American Express motto, don’t leave home without it.

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