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How to Spot an Adversarial Negotiator

Asymmetric warfare is what military and defense experts call it when an adversary seeks to attack where you are weakest. An enemy weaker than you will often use this method as part of the idea of choosing the battlefield. In military affairs, this is a smart idea.

The military’s goal is to defeat resistance. The win-win, the mutual accommodations, of effective negotiations only then can come.

Effective negotiations are win-win, where everybody gains and, equally importantly, appears to gain. But an effective negotiator will learn from the idea of choosing the battlefield and do his or her best to bring the negotiations back to win-win. Even if you can defeat an adversarial negotiator at their own game, this is not effective in the long run. These people don’t take defeat well; they do not respect an opponent. They will be out for revenge, out to “get you back” — which will not be to your benefit.

So how do you deal with an adversarial negotiator?

You start with another lesson from the military — know your enemy. You will have done your due diligence before you set foot in the negotiation room. But you do this for all buying influences. You have an ultimate goal in mind for the negotiations. You have a strategy mapped out coupled with a flexible state of mind to change when necessary. You have a general idea of conditions under which you will walk out and end discussions — for good or until later. But your research has convinced you that this is not likely.

No “red flags” appear to make you think that the potential client might be a problem that you cannot handle. Unfortunately, the problem is that the only real way to spot an adversarial negotiator is dealing with them in negotiations. Again, the way to deal with them is not to try to beat them at their own game but to turn the tide to play your own game. You start with recognizing that you are dealing with an adversarial negotiator.

He or she will not have a name tag listing their title as “adversarial negotiator.” You can spot them, and you can deal with them, by recognizing certain behavioral characteristics.

An adversarial negotiator deals through manipulation. They use a range of pressure tactics to defeat you and get what they want. Their tactics are easy to spot if you know what to look for or if you just sense that your counterpart, on the other side of the table, has crossed the line from hard bargaining to underhanded and more overt pressure tactics. Whether the pressure tactic is silence, which is designed to get you to drop your price without them uttering one word — just to fill an uncomfortable gap — or making a ridiculous offer to get you to lower your expectations and your objectives, the aim is to coerce you into caving in. Once you recognize adversarial pressure tactics as such, the tactics lose their power.

There is nothing wrong with tactics in themselves. They are ways of carrying out strategy and reaching goals. Consultative negotiators also use tactics, but they use them as a part of a give and take trading process. You can distinguish adversarial from consultative negotiators by observing adversarial patterns and behaviors, including a disproportionate or total lack of give and take.

An adversarial negotiator uses pressure tactics because they work. However, they only work if you let them. When you find yourself negotiating with someone you think is likely to be an adversarial, you should look for typical adversarial signals, such as the extreme demand, no authority, no concessions, and threats. You should already be prepared — knowing your objective and having a good idea of how you want to get to your objective. Be prepared to use silence as a tool for you, responding only when you are reading to response.

Ask hard questions when this is appropriate. Let your adversarial counterpart save face by winning a few minor points, but unless the point is really minor, get something back. Do not take things personally. Stay calm, and show confidence. Be prepared to end the meeting, if necessary.

Remember, though, that there is one time when you usually should end the meeting, perhaps for good. Be very reluctant to tolerate deceit.

An optimistic view is that most negotiation misunderstandings are just communication errors. The old saying is, don’t attribute to malevolence what can be explained by stupidity. But sometimes, questionable actions may be an intent to deceive. Now is the time to weed out clients or prospects that might cross the line from hard negotiations to unethical, or even illegal, tactics. If you catch this during negotiations, this is the time to stop and consult with your sales manager or legal counsel. It may be time to just end discussions.

About the Author

Richardson is a global sales training and performance improvement company. Our goal is to transform every buyer experience by empowering sellers with critical skills so they can create value to buyers and drive meaningful conversations. Our methodology combines a market proven sales and coaching curriculum with an innovative and customizable approach to learning that ensures your sales teams learn, master, and apply those behaviors where and when it matters most — in front of your customers. It’s our job to anticipate change in your industry so that your sales team can focus on fostering long-term relationships, becoming indispensable partners for their buyers.

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