You’re in the midst of a negotiation when it happens: the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Your counterpart says something seriously offensive to you and you’re at a loss. Do you even want to come back from this, much less make a deal with someone who would treat you with such disrespect?
If you’re negotiating in a work context where you have little option but to continue, the only way out is through . First, take a break from the discussion. If possible, give yourself at least a day to cool off before you make any moves. Even if the only time you can get to regroup is a quick trip to the restroom or to the pantry to get a glass of water, take it. For one thing, interrupted conversations rarely return to the original thread, so you can at least create the opportunity to change the subject. Plus, taking a short break allows you to check in with — or set — an intention. Setting an intention is an important precursor to any difficult conversation because it keeps you close to the outcome you’re seeking and helps you avoid unproductive diversions. It could be the difference between a robust discussion and an argument, or worse, a one-sided negotiation where you feel defeated and agree to a bad deal.
If your instinct is either to crumple and give in completely, or to get aggressive and fight back even harder, I urge you to resist. Here are four ways to bring your negotiation back from the brink.
1. Use humor to diffuse a tense situation.
Someone has become upset and raised his or her voice. Before it becomes a shouting match, take the moment as an opportunity to use humor to lighten a negative conversation. “Well, this has certainly turned into a feisty debate! Let’s see if we can turn this around.”
2. Turn a negative into a neutral.
A boss once reprimanded me for not being “nicer” in a meeting. Given what I know about perceptions of assertive women in the workplace — essentially, that assertive women are not liked, and this hinders their career growth — I found this comment offensive and biased. I used the moment as an opportunity to rephrase what my boss said: if I seemed curt, it was because I was focused on accomplishing the tasks at hand and the meeting had gone off track.
3. Remind them of better times.
If you have a positive shared history of working together, now’s the time to bring it up. Emphasize that you and your counterpart have shared goals and that you are part of a team. This strategy is particularly effective for women. “Our companies have been doing business together for the last three years. This partnership is valuable to us, and I’d like to think it is to your team, too. Surely we can work something out.”
4. Give them a chance to take it back.
A former colleague of mine recently shared a story with me about a conversation where she and a new hire were meeting to discuss the details of his role. After their discussion, he said to her, “I have to tell you, you are very articulate.” As the only African-American woman on the team, and the only person he singled out in this way, it felt like a racially charged comment. If you need to reach an agreement, or even simply continue to work with this person, one way to deal with a comment like this is to presume it was ambiguous (even if you feel it wasn’t). Look them in the eye and ask them: “What did you mean by that?” It lets them know you aren’t going to stand for inappropriate remarks , yet gives them a chance to save face and reform going forward.
This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.