When confronted with a difficult person in any type of negotiation, the default position may seem to be “tit for tat”; if the other person is difficult, then you become more difficult in an attempt to out dominate the other (and potentially dominating) person.

But a recent blog post in Harvard PONS entitled, “When Dealing with Difficult People, Try a Complementary Approach” by Katie Shonk (August 27,2020)  suggests a different approach. Research indicates that the best results are achieved when one person in a pair of negotiators uses a dominating approach while the other uses a complementary approach.

In an experiment administered by Scott Wiltermuth of USC in Los Angeles and Larissa Z. Tiedens and Margaret Neale of Stanford University, they asked pairs of participants to negotiate a complex merger of companies. Some of the participants were told to take on a dominating style through body language and otherwise while other participants were told to take on a deferential style- again through body language and otherwise “…working to make sure the other party felt respected.” (Id.)

The results? :

Pairs in which one negotiator behaved dominantly and the other submissively (as instructed) reached the best deals, as measured using a point system. These pairs of complementary-style negotiators outperformed pairs made up of same-style negotiators, including two dominant negotiators, two submissive negotiators, and two control-group members. The dominant/submissive pairs achieved their superior success thanks to their complementary communication style, in which the dominant negotiators stated their preferences directly and the deferential ones asked questions.  (Id.)

Notably, the complementary negotiator was not submissive, giving up whatever she wanted to the other. Rather she managed to obtain what she wanted by asking questions to find common interests or to expand the pie. Through such questioning seeking common ground, the “complementary” negotiator made the “dominant” negotiator feel “respected, competent and understood.”  (Id.)

So- the moral which is ageless is that “one catches more flies with honey than vinegar” or in this context, by being complementary to the “difficult” negotiator- asking questions to determine her needs and to find common interests and common ground. Rather than playing a game of one-upmanship and delving into a downward negotiation spiral, turn the negotiation from a win-lose, zero sum game into a win-win or integrative negotiation.

Obviously, this is much easier said than done, but it is after all…just something to think about.



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