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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 22: Respond to Tactics

By Karen S. Walch, Ph.D.

Many classic notions of power require negotiation tactics of psychological manipulation. A Machiavellian manipulator, for example, conceals aggressive intentions and behaviors, and uses tactics which prey on the psychological vulnerabilities of a counterpart. Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that classic power theorists have espoused for centuries as a way to change the perception or behavior of others. In the contemporary negotiation environment, such tactics are often counter productive and come largely at the expense of one’s negotiation partnerships. This week’s law explores the realm of social influence tactics many negotiators consider too manipulative and abusive.

A study of how to disarm such tactics can strengthen the practices in how to strip away the potency of these techniques. If you have experienced a negotiation with someone who does not respect your interests or is unduly coercive, then you may benefit from some of the methods from verbal self-defense, for example. This week we will review what manipulation tactics involve, why they work, and how to change the game if you want to.

Manipulation tactics are often used to shift the confidence and leverage in a negotiation away from you and toward the manipulator. Some of these tactics are often called hardball and sometimes motivate others toward revenge or an escalation into a battle of wills.

If you think that hardball tactics will backfire or you consider them to be out of bounds in the context of the negotiation relationship, you will want to plan to counter them in your preparation.

It is first of all important to know what manipulation tactics are and then how to respond to them.

Some tactics include overt negative comments about someone’s appearance, ethnicity or dietary preferences. In more subtle ways, a manipulator derails a constructive dialogue toward winning in a contest of wills. For example, if a problem solving negotiator wants to discuss an uncomfortable topic, the manipulator will focus on a particular word, disagree with how it is used, assign a new definition to that word, and claim they “know” what a counterpart’s interests are.

Many of these techniques are often labeled as verbal abuse because a manipulator continues to reject any redefinition of the words until the counterpart gives up to the manipulator who then “wins” by avoiding the central problems at hand. Verbal abuse includes withholding, trivializing, blocking, insulting, threatening, and sometimes yelling!

Most manipulative negotiation tactics work when negotiators find it difficult to accept the idea that some people are cunning, devious and ruthless. Some negotiators are unprepared and lack confidence when a hardball negotiator makes aggressive claims and preys on one’s vulnerabilities, such as not having a Plan B or alternative to the negotiation.

Since most predatory negotiators take considerable time to scope out the vulnerabilities of a counterpart, they may strategically use phrases and actions to undermine negotiation leverage and psychological confidence. It is important in any negotiation preparation plan to remember that all negotiators need to advance their own purposes. However, it is even more critical to identify how a manipulator will want to also gain something at virtually any cost to you.

A manipulator has a strong need to attain feelings of power, control and superiority in a negotiation relationship with you.

Quality negotiation preparation on all dimensions is the best way to recognize and disarm hardball tactics or verbal abuse. For example, in your preparation phase of a negotiation it is critical that you design what a satisfying negotiation relationship would look like. Consider the needs and elements you value and expect in negotiation partnerships, such as respect, understanding, acceptance, responsibility and trustworthiness.

When we think about what constitutes a satisfying negotiation relationship, it becomes easier to identify it when we are bullied into an unhealthy one.

In order to respond effectively to negotiation tactics you believe are not effective, disrespectful or designed to undermine your interests or resolve, it is necessary to quickly identify the tactics and understand how they work. It is also important to speak to others who can support you and discuss the situation and tactics you encounter.

Seek out negotiators who have insight, experience and competencies for problem solving negotiation and facilitation skills in constructive negotiation dialogue. It is also important to review not only the preparation strategies on your strategic level, but also on the physical, social, psychological and spiritual dimensions (see Laws 1-14).

Clarity about your needs and values will guide your decision making skills in any negotiation. Your skills become tested even more when you are the potential victim of a predatory negotiator. Prepared negotiators know they have the right to be taken seriously and be listened to even though an abuse is experienced.

If a current negotiation of yours is one where you want to respond effectively to hardball tactics or verbal abuse, consider the following action steps:

1. Ignore the manipulation tactic. Pretend you did not hear it, call a break, switch topics, and ask them to repeat.

2. Discuss the tactics. Label the tactic and indicate to the other that you know this tactic.

3. Respond in kind. Prepare for the potential relationship and financial costs.

4. Lead the other. Stress the importance of what problems and compatible needs you both have in common.

Extra Credit

For more on verbal self-defense, read Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense: Revised and Updated (Fall River Press, 2009).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.

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