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Negotiating with Bullies

Giving in rarely makes them stop wanting more

Bullies can be anywhere. They often are spousal abusers, workplace harassers, sometimes heads of businesses, and even some political leaders. They tend to have high-conflict personalities, which means that they lack interpersonal problem-solving skills so they make demands rather than finding solutions to problems.

But what do you do if you are facing a bully in negotiations and need to resolve a dispute as soon as possible? Do you give in, hope they’re satisfied and will be more reasonable in the future? Do you fight every inch of the way? How can a reasonable person respond to an unreasonable bully? Here’s a few suggestions based on dealing with bullies in family conflicts, workplace disputes and legal disputes.

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Avoid Giving In

Bullies don’t negotiate; they make demands, they make threats, and they fight for them. They generally lack the modern skills of win-win negotiations that are driving today’s business decisions, healthcare, education, the settlement of legal disputes, and happy families. So don’t think of their demands as a form of true negotiations. It’s more like warfare. And you don’t want to give in to that.

High-conflict people are at war with the world around them and they go from relationship to relationship to relationship in which they try to dominate. But when they “win” by dominating, they can’t be happy. So they think they want more. It’s sad, because the people that give in to them feel terrorized on a daily basis. And the high-conflict person (HCP) feels unhappy because no one likes them. Bullying doesn’t work in ongoing relationships and today’s world is all about ongoing relationships. That’s what people really want and healthy relationships are what makes people happy.

Win-Win Negotiations

Today’s negotiations that work well are interest-based. Today’s skilled negotiators want to know what you want—what your “interests” are—so they can find solutions that will satisfy both of you. Then you’ll both be happy or at least okay with the solution, because you know there were be more negotiations in the future and that the other person respects you and will respect your interests then too.

When you give in to a bully, it feels rotten because you have no sense of confidence that the same thing won’t happen in the future—and it does. Bullies think in win-lose terms, so they always have to win and you always have to lose. Nobody wants to be in a relationship like that. I have helped hundreds of people get out of relationships like that, either by divorce, leaving a job, or simply saying goodbye.

The best little book on win-win negotiations is Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It’s been the foundation of win-win negotiations for over thirty years in modern business, legal and political disputes.

Know Your Bottom Line

Before you go into a negotiation session, know how far you’re willing to go. If you have a team of people involved, make sure you are all on the same page. If the other person or team wants to push you past your “bottom line,” then say you can’t go that far. You can go this far (what you agree upon), but not that far (past your bottom line). Always know when it’s worth it to stop negotiating. In Getting to Yes, they talk about your BATNA: your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, such as going to court, splitting up, or some other thing you’ll do rather than go past your bottom line. You have to be willing to be firm about this.

Appear Calm and Patient

Bullies (high-conflict people) love to get emotional and they try to get you emotional. Instead, try to stay calm and focused on what you want. If they can get you emotional, you’ll make rash decisions and they know that. Instead, prepare yourself to be calm and patient—very patient. The best negotiators aren’t in a rush. Bullies are. They tend to be impulsive and easily frustrated. Don’t join them emotionally. Instead stay relaxed and give the impression you have all the time in the world.

Because if you give the impression that you’re in a rush and desperate to settle your dispute, then they will easily manipulate you into giving up something you really don’t want to give up, just because you want to get it over with. Instead, prepare yourself or your team for the long view. Often, bullies and other high-conflict people will then feel the pressure themselves and want to settle as soon as possible. Bullies want to be in charge and they can’t stand delayed gratification. If you’re calm, confident and relaxed, they often go somewhere else and bother someone else, because you’re not fun or exciting to dominate any more.

Bring in a Neutral Decision-Maker or Mediator

If the disputes goes on too long, suggest to the other person or team that there be an outside decision-maker or mediator. In legal disputes, it’s often going to court where a judge or jury will make the hard decisions. In families, it’s often a mutually-agreed influential person in the family, like Uncle Joe or Grandma. Ask the person to help resolve the dispute or help negotiate an agreement. If it’s a neighbor dispute, talk about going to a community mediation center where people are trained to help.

The idea with this is that someone who’s neutral can often assist when people are stuck negotiating on their own. Often bullies don’t like this idea, because then they aren’t the most powerful person in the room. But on the other hand, it’s hard for them to argue with the neutral person, because they’re neutral. All of this takes the issues away from the bully while not directly challenging him/her. It’s reasonable and gives you time to think and the bully time to slow down.


Negotiating with a bully can be scary and worrisome. But they usually only get their way if they can intimidate the other person they’re bullying. But of course: if you are in life or death position with a bully (such as an abusive partner who is threatening you with a gun or choking you), say and do whatever it takes to stay alive. Then, get out of the relationship when you can. It generally doesn’t get better, and usually just gets worse.

If you show an agitated emotional response in negotiations, it will tell the bully that you are afraid, in a rush and will give in. If you can keep a calm and confident emotional presence, they often back off and bother someone else. So get support, know your bottom line, get an advocate to help you negotiate, and involve a mediator or decision-maker if necessary. Bullies (high-conflict people) only have power when the people they attack believe them.