Handling Disruptive Negotiation Tactics: Defusing Anger, Threats & Ultimatums

During the lunch break for a recent negotiation workshop a participant asked “How do you handle a customer who seems friendly during the sales process but turns into a monster when negotiating?” He shared with us a story of a mild mannered executive who was engaging and value-focused throughout the sales process but became aggressive, threatening and vulgar when it came to negotiating a close to the deal.

Most sales professionals have similar stories of a Jekyll-Hyde transformation. These disruptive negotiating tactics include:

  • Threats & Ultimatums
  • Loud, Angry Speech
  • Profanity & Vulgarity
  • Extreme Positions

So what guidelines should be followed when the climate changes suddenly and our carefully nurtured partnership seems headed over the edge and into the abyss? Let’s take a look at the “why” and the “how” of managing these tactics.

Why does a customer change “persona” and resort to disruptive tactics?

It’s usually the result of one of two catalysts: desperation or calculation.

  • Desperation. In some situations a disruptive act may arise out of fear or desperation. The customer may fear some unspecified business consequence (i.e., a long delay in implementing a vital software system). In other situations they may be desperate to bring the overall project costs within limits that have not been shared with the sales professional. Threats and demands surface because the customer is desperate to secure an outcome and sees his/her efforts at collaborative negotiation failing.
  • Calculation. In some organizations there is an expectation of using any and all means for gaining the very best resolution to financial issues. It’s part of the culture and history of the department or organization as a whole. The customer uses a carefully planned threat, ultimatum, emotional outburst or abusive language to extort an advantage from the sales representative. It’s all about power and most sales professionals find themselves paralyzed by the tactic.

How do we manage the disruption and refocus on a “win-win” strategy?

Let’s look at five tactics for managing threat and abuse.

  1. Profile your counterpart. Thoroughly research any buyer or representative of the buying organization that may participate in the formal negotiating session. If you are negotiating with someone you don’t know, contact other members of the buying organization who can help you profile your counterpart. What is their style of negotiating? What results do they expect and what tactics are they likely to use? What makes them uncomfortable? Above all, what is their desired “win” from the negotiation?
  2. Probe with questions. Explore what caused the change in “persona.” Perhaps you can read their body language or decode some verbal cues that suggest whether the catalyst is desperation or calculation. Craft a couple of attitude questions that prompt them to a) recognize the change and b) clarify the issue(s) that require review. For example, you might ask, “Is there some aspect of our current discussion that worries or concerns you?” Followed by, “What is your concern?
  3. Keep calm; your attitude is powerful. Never be defensive or argumentative. For some folks this may take practice. Your silence and calm demeanor can be effective in getting past the outburst, especially if the emotion is the result of fear or desperation. Always consider the possibility that they are embarrassed by their outburst. Give the buyer an opportunity to reconnect without the emotion. Be calm, professional and flexible.
  4. Offer trade-offs, not outright concessions. Avoid the temptation to try and assuage quickly the customer’s temperament. In instances of anger, abuse and emotional rage, you’ll find that your immediate instinct is to say something that will calm your customer. Don’t! More often than not you’ll find yourself saying something that compromises your strategy for gaining a “win-win.” What you don’t want to say is one of the following “Don’t worry, I’m sure we can sharpen our pencil.” “Let me talk to my manager and see if we can get closer to your expectation.” In cases where you believe the customer’s actions are a ploy or tactic designed to serve their interest and undermine yours, you would be doing exactly what your customer wants—tacitly conceding to change your proposal without exploring your customer’s underlying interests.

Often a buyer uses anger combined with unreasonable demands to send an electrical shock wave through the seller’s system. Your immediate thought is: “OMG! I can’t believe that we’ve come this far and I’m going to lose this sales opportunity. What will I tell my manager?” The customer believes that he/she can reclaim a position of power in the negotiations by using a high valence threat or ultimatum. Don’t succumb to this tactic!

Instead of an outright concession, look for trade-offs that will provide your counterpart some of what they want while gaining something on your priority list in return.

  1. Use reasoning to counteract emotion. It’s extremely difficult to hold intense emotions (right brain) and think rationally (left brain) at the same time. One highly effective method for defusing an emotionally laden situation is to engage the buyer in some rational process like “brainstorming” alternatives or prioritizing issues or listing solutions. A simple request like “help me get an understanding of where this issue fits into your list of priorities” will refocus the buyer on a cognitive task instead of venting emotions.

At a minimum, never let the buyer get away with “unprincipled demands.” An unprincipled demand is one that has no underlying rationale supporting the position. For example. “Your price is too high and I am not going to pay it” or “We will never buy anything unless we get a 10% discount!” Insist that your counterpart share how they calculated the price or discount and arrived at their position. Ask the buyer to explain why their demand is fair for both parties.

 Parting Thoughts

While we convince ourselves that our complex, high price tag business negotiations are extreme cases of winning and losing, that’s far from the truth. Studies on hostage negotiations share a fresh perspective on what works and what doesn’t work in extreme cases. There are two common themes among experts in this area. Slow everything down. Don’t be driven by emotional outbursts and threats. Take your time and consider how you can restore equilibrium. If necessary, take one or more steps backward in the negotiation process.

Continue to remind your counterpart what they stand to win if the negotiations are successful and what they risk losing if negotiations deteriorate.

Last, every highly successful negotiator has mastered the effective use of the two-letter word “no.” There are times when it becomes impossible to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial. Assure them that you are focused on addressing their priorities and interests but can’t take this specific step. Ask them to help you discover options.