How To Negotiate When The Other Person Won't Play Fair


Recently I spent some time with my friends and their toddler, Sam. Sam told his mom he wanted to do a somersault. His mom said he could do just one. “One somersault, Sam. How many somersaults are you allowed to do?” He grinned mischievously and said “Two somersaults!” She repeated, “One somersault.” “OK,” he said, and went for it. As soon as he was upright, he shouted, “Again!” My friend asked Sam, “Do you remember what mommy said?” and eventually he conceded. Luckily, we managed to distract him with a toy before chaos took over.

Turns out, my friend used some pretty smart negotiating moves with her toddler. When you’re faced with a counterpart who doesn’t want to play fair once you’ve closed the deal, take some inspiration from the playground and use these three moves to reinforce your position.

Start out on the same page

When you negotiate with someone, there are actually two conversations going on: the one revolving around the terms of the deal, and another one that gender and negotiation expert Deborah Kolb calls the “shadow negotiation” — the unspoken conversation about how the negotiation will unfold. If you’re negotiating with someone who has more power than you (your boss, say) you might not think you’ll be able to influence this. If your boss typically makes decisions unilaterally, try engaging him in a casual conversation about the topic at hand where you can mention your concerns or priorities. If it’s not a formal meeting with an agenda, he might be more receptive, or at least less reactive, than when he’s in a room full of people.

Then, follow up using a “nudge” from behavioral science. Be proactive by sending him an email recapping your conversation and asking for his confirmation. If you can copy another person relevant to the conversation, so much the better. When people make voluntary public commitments, they are more likely to follow through with them. “Public” in this case is copying a third person on the email so that the conversation goes beyond just the two of you.

Repeat as needed

Assert yourself if the other party isn’t playing by the rules you’ve all agreed to. “John, last week we both agreed that I would be leading the project.” Restating your view is a conflict management technique recommended by office politics expert Kathleen Kelley Reardon. Calling out what’s going on by naming the issue is one of the negotiation “turns,” or strategies to get the discussion back on track, that Kolb writes about in her book, Everyday Negotiation: Navigating The Hidden Agendas In Bargaining.

Ask open ended questions

If, now that you’ve made clear you won’t be bullied or talked into changing terms, your counterpart is flat out refusing to engage, all is not necessarily lost. Try approaching the issue with questions: “Could we discuss your point of view? What’s most concerning for you about the approach we’ve discussed?” Putting the ball back in their court by asking questions is a strategy encouraged by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting To Yes: How To Negotiate Without Giving In. Don't let them off the hook easily: ask them to articulate why they're trying to change the deal and what held them back from bringing up the issue sooner. Not only are you holding firm to your position for this negotiation, you're setting yourself up for a stronger position in the next shadow negotiation because they'll know you aren't going to be pushed around.

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.