How To Keep Your Cool When Negotiating With Someone You Can’t Stand

I’m going to share with you one of my favorite psychological negotiation tricks. It’s so simple and effective that it sounds too good to be true — but it’s not.

You can use this trick in many contexts: it works if you’re struggling to stick to a diet, if you’re trying to kick your social media addiction, and yes, if you’re negotiating… especially if you’re negotiating with someone you dislike. The key is to use a distraction as a way to redirect your focus.

Whether you’re telling yourself, “I’m not going to eat that cookie,” or, “I’m not going to take the bait when my manager tries to provoke me,” what you’re doing is trying to restrain yourself. The problem is, it’s much harder to restrain than distract.

I think of it as “won’t do” vs. “will do.” When you’re about to reach for a mid-afternoon snack, look instead for one item to check off your to-do list. Rather than deciding you won’t get into an argument with your rude colleague when you’re hashing out responsibilities for a project, decide what you will do instead: “When John tells me I should leave the strategic planning to the men, I will pause and take a deep breath, then move the conversation forward by asking a question about the next topic on the agenda.”

The research behind this strategy originated in the 1960s. A psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted what’s become known as “the marshmallow test” to learn about delayed gratification in children. In the study, he gave a child a marshmallow and then left her or him alone in a room with it. The child could eat the marshmallow now, or wait until Mischel returned and receive two marshmallows. The children who were able to hold out found a way to distract themselves.

You might associate distraction with checking Facebook instead of working, but you can also use it as a tool to keep yourself on track with your goals. When you’re mentally preparing for a negotiation where you anticipate personality clashes, plan ahead for the situation you’re dreading. You’re (indefinitely) delaying the gratification — of shouting back, saying what you really think, letting them have it once and for all — by distracting yourself. You’re changing the subject.

Would it feel good to tell them to their face what a jerk they are? You bet. Will it help you reach an agreement that works for both of you without torpedoing your relationship? Unlikely. Unfortunately, that person isn’t likely to change his or her bad behavior just because you point it out. Your own behavior is the only thing you have any hope of controlling. When you’re dealing with obstacles, follow this mantra: change what you can control, influence what you can’t.


This “won’t do” vs. “will do” strategy is one of the techniques Heidi Grant, Ph.D., calls out in her book, “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.” Grant is Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. It may take you a few tries to get the hang of, but I hope you’ll find it useful when you do.

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.

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Alexandra Dickinson

Alexandra Dickinson is the CEO and founder of Ask For It, a boutique consulting company working to close the gender wage gap by effecting change at both the institutional and individual level. We work with companies, schools, organizations and individuals through a combination of trainings, workshops and consulting. Our goal is for women and men to be paid based on their talents and skills, regardless of gender, and for our company to have been an important part of that change.