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3 Ways To Handle Negotiations With Difficult People



Negotiating with difficult people

From the boardroom to the car showroom or simply rescheduling a flight, we negotiate every day. Really, any time we want something from someone, whether it’s money, an act of kindness, respect, or anything else, we are negotiating. And some of the people we negotiate with seem to have “make my day” written all over them.

But, while you really would like to make their day; you also want to persuade them to make your day. And to achieve that kind of win-win outcome requires something a little more subtle than the .44 magnum Dirty Harry relied on in Sudden Impact.

Here are three types of phrases you can add to your arsenal to help people become more receptive to your suggestions:

1. Leading phrases that defuse

Your typical difficult person isn’t just being difficult with you. It’s their default modus operandi.  So while leading with phrases such as, “It seems to me …”, “This is just my opinion …”, “I may be wrong about this …” may seem counter-intuitive, even “weak,” it really accomplishes two things.

First it surprises them, because that isn’t how most people handle them, and it soothes their ego. As you know, a person’s ego will often stand in the way of their being receptive to another’s idea. These phrases act as softeners to their ego.

You’re not saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” That’s what they’re used to. Instead, you are allowing for the definite possibility that you might not be correct. Quite opposite from causing the other person to doubt the truth of your statement, it will actually cause them to drop their guard and become a lot more open to it. Counter-intuitive? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.

Second, it will open your mind. You’ll not only be asking if you are right, or in the right, these phrases program your subconscious to be open to other solutions and resolutions. So you might end up with a better situation (think two cupcakes instead of one) than you were even negotiating for.

“Communication is the fuel that keeps the fire of your relationship burning. Without it, your relationship goes cold.” – William Paisley

2. Seek first to understand

I don’t think anyone phrased it any better than Dr. Stephen R. Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when he wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Difficult people are often behaving the way they do because they need to be heard, they’re trying to cut you off at the pass, so to speak, by being insistent on their position right from the beginning.

Try another type of softening phrase like “for my own clarification …” and “I’m just curious about …” which suggest that you are sincerely interested in their point of view (even though you may not agree with it.)

Of course, if it leads to your difficult person being less defensive and explaining their point of view in more rational terms it also gives you a better chance of speaking to their real objections and working toward a resolution that is a win for everyone involved.


3. Offer to do your part

You might not expect a phrase suggesting that the other person tell you what to do would put you in the power seat, but it does.

In non-manipulative, or what we call “positive persuasion,” a phrase like, “What can I do to help?” or “Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you?” both defuses their firepower and puts the ball in their court to offer constructive feedback. It’s similar to the tactic used by hostage negotiators who will come right out, whether by bullhorn or telephone, and ask the hostage-taker, “What is it you’d like to have happen?” or “What is it you want to accomplish through this?”

You may not be negotiating a life or death situation, but keep your cool, present a calm, self-controlled front, and simply ask the question. Typically, they will be happy to give you the answer, and the conversation will tend to take a much more mutually beneficial direction.

“Always do your best. What you plant now, you will harvest later.” – Og Mandino

Just as a professional boxer uses the parry which, properly executed, allows the fighter to deflect an oncoming jab with the slightest flick of the wrist, these phrases take the force that your difficult person is throwing your way and defuses it. Often you’ll find that using these phrases even gives you the advantage.

Have you personally used any of these phrases? Did they help? Please give us your feedback in the comment section below!

Bob Burg is a world-renowned speaker and best-selling author. His book, The Go-Giver, coauthored with John David Mann, is a Wall St. Journal Business Bestseller which has sold more than 500,000 copies. Their newest book is The Go-Giver Leader. Burg hosts “The Go-Giver Podcast.



  1. Ram Vijay

    Apr 20, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Good one. I am not in part of negotiating anything in my life so far. But I have to do the play in coming days. I am planning to buy a residential plot. For that I need to negotiate with the owners, brokers etc about the estimated cost. Please give advice on that too!

    • Bob Burg

      Apr 21, 2016 at 11:43 am

      Thank you, Ram. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. In answer to your question, “Negotiation” (the win/win kind) is, in and of itself, a subject to be studied and is beyond the scope of this response. Understanding the principles behind effective win/win negotiation will increase your chances for significant success throughout your life, and not just in business, but personally, relationally, socially, and in all other ways important to living a life of success and happiness. So, my first suggestion is to begin purchasing books that teach this subject. And, remember, for you to win, the other person also needs to win. Negotiation – at its heart and when done correctly – is not a zero-sum game but rather one in which all parties attain more of what they want.

      Now, regarding a quick answer to your question that will get you off to a good start, begin by asking yourself what it is you want. What must you have in order to feel good about the transaction? Then, do your research in order to determine what the other person wants (or at least needs) in order for them to come away feeling good about the transaction. When you understand both of these elements, you are now negotiating from a knowledge base, which is very important. From there, you must know what needs to be done in order to make this happen. If you are not experienced in this regard perhaps hire someone who is and can help you through the process. You also need to be able to “walk away from the deal” IF you don’t feel as though you are going to get what you want from it.

      Key point: While it helps all parties when the other party is also a win/win negotiator, the fact is, they may not be. They may not care about you attaining satisfaction but it doesn’t matter – so long as you are doing it this way, that’s all that counts. And, you will actually attain more doing it this way because you’ll keep in mind that the only way they are going to do the transaction is if they get what they need. The same for you.

      Please do not misinterpret this as you doing something counter-productive to yourself. Not at all. It simply means that if it isn’t a good deal for everyone…then it’s not a good deal.

      I hope this helps in at least some small way. Best wishes for great success!

  2. Bob Burg

    Apr 20, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Chris, thank you for your feedback. So glad you enjoyed the article and found it to be of value. And, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

  3. Chris

    Apr 20, 2016 at 6:02 am

    I love that you referred to the book “7 Habita of Highly Effective People” I’d also say it’s a similar technique in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” it’s all about seeing it from their point of view.

    The best part is the last point, instead of us guessing and offering something that the opposite party might not even want, we should directly ask them “So what can I do for you to resolve this situation?” There’s no escaping them answering that, I’ve had people say “well you’re the one who should offer me something” I always respond with “but that’s what I want, I’m looking to please you” Works every time!

    Great article, thanks 🙂

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