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4 Secrets to Communicating with Difficult People

Expert advice from professional negotiators.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Whether you are dealing with a grumpy teenager, putting up with a boss that makes your life miserable, or engaging with a difficult person in another context, knowing some of the techniques employed by successful negotiators can help you steer your encounters in the desired direction. That would be a better result than feeling out of control, wouldn’t it?

When we lose control, we go into crisis mode. We swing between anger and hopelessness. We get frustrated and we fall hostage to our negative and disempowering emotions. That’s not a state of mind you want to be in. There is little to gain when a situation controls you, rather than you being in control. You are better off if you have a method that helps you to author your life, even when it gets tough.

Let’s examine 4 secrets employed by successful negotiators to reach agreement with difficult people:

1. Know What You Want.

Clarity of purpose is key for any successful negotiation. Often, we experience emotions that put us down because our mind is clouded and we are unable to understand what’s going. We wonder what our next step should be. Our mind is fogged. We lack clarity. By the time a negotiator sits down at the table, he or she has already identified specific and desired results the negotiation has to produce. So, ask yourself when confronted with a tough situation: What is it that you really want to achieve? What are your goals?

Having a clear, concrete and measurable answer to this question (which might include clarity about what you are not ready to accept and tolerate) will assist you greatly in dealing with a difficult person or situation.

2. Know The Other Side.

By this I don’t mean only to know what the goals of the other party are or what it is up to. Nor do I mean only to collect information that will help you to bond with the other person in a more sincere and meaningful way. Of course, the more information you have, the better. But what I mean by “knowing the other side” is the importance of identifying what basic human needs the other party is trying to satisfy—even through a behavior that might even be harmful and destructive. As Tony Robbins likes to emphasize, there is always a positive intention behind someone’s behavior—that is, there is always the intention of satisfying a need.

Recognizing that we are moved by positive intentions and learning how to identify the need someone satisfies with a negative behavior had a great impact on the quality of my work.

In fact, whenever I am able to identify if an individual, by means of a particular behavior, is looking for recognition, or a deeper connection, or is simply scared and searching for security, I am in a better position to connect with the basic needs of that person, and take care of them. In fact, once the need is identified, what needs to change is the strategy to achieve it. Knowing this, together with the other person, I can explore alternatives.

So, what’s the positive intention behind the behavior of your grumpy teenage child, or your impossible boss? Is it recognition? Security? A deeper connection? How can you help the other to meet his or her need in a more constructive way? What alternatives exist?

3. Prepare Options for Mutual Gain.

If you know the other person and you have identified his or her needs and interests, then you can come up with a menu of options that benefits both you and the other. In other words, ask yourself: What arrangements might take care of your own needs and those of the other?

If you focus exclusively on your own needs and interests, you make a poor negotiator, and the conflict you are facing is destined to escalate and to become intractable. Instead, once you have clarity about your preferred outcome and have identified the key need of the other, you can become creative and come up with solutions that are mutually beneficial.

Rather than seeing in the other an opponent you have to defeat, see in him or her a partner with whom to collaborate.

In fact, even if there is tension and disagreement, when we belong to a family, an organization, or a community, we are entangled in the same web of relations. Becoming aware of this web helps you to perceive the other person not as separated from you, but as part of your life and reality.

4. Listen.

There is no skill more powerful and transformative in a negotiation than listening. Listening is opening the space that allows for an encounter with the other. Listening engenders the conditions that allow the other person to express his or her own needs and interests.

Moreover, listening doesn’t only provide an opportunity for the other to express himself or herself; it also offers a chance to gain insights into the experience and perception of the other.

You will not get to know the other party unless you listen authentically and deeply. This level of listening requires the capacity to put yourself in parentheses, at least momentarily, to make space for the other.

In listening (and not telling or talking down) rests the first powerful step towards change and transformation.

Finding ways to implement these four secrets of successful negotiators will increase the effectiveness of your communication, deepen your relationships, elicit unimagined solutions, and turn problems into opportunities—and the quality of your life will experience an upgrade.

If you are interested in exploring all 8 Secrets of Successful Negotiators, get my infograph here.

Aldo Civico brings to the table 25 years of experience in conflict resolution. He has worked globally with countries, communities and organizations embedded in protracted and violent conflicts. To organizations as well as to individuals, Aldo today provides training and coaching in conflict management, effective communication, emotional intelligence and negotiation. He served as a director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University and is the founder of the International Institute for Peace at Rutgers University, where he is a core faculty member of the masters in peace and conflict studies.

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