The Shy Person’s Guide to Dealing With an Aggressive Negotiator

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Photo: Michael Desmond/ABC

If you’ve ever seen the television show Shark Tank, you know that a big chunk of its appeal comes from its cringe factor. The show is built around high-pressure, high-stakes negotiation that’s most entertaining when it’s aggressive: The sharks, investors like Barbara Corcoran and Kevin O’Leary, are powerful and intimidating, which compels you to keep watching awkward sales pitch after awkward sales pitch, waiting for the moment when a smug shark rips into a naïve entrepreneur. When the sharks get mad, the show is good. When the entrepreneurs fight back, it’s pure gold.

This kind of aggressive negotiating makes for great entertainment, but it’s probably something best left to reality TV. In the real world, if you’re a shy, soft-spoken negotiator, it’s easy to see how facing down a ruthless shark type would leave you with the raw end of the deal; after all, when the Shark Tank entrepreneurs have to endure a long round of angry bargaining, they often concede to deals that are much, much worse than their initial offers. As it turns out, though, when one side gets aggressive, both parties end up losing out.

Interestingly, a recent study published in the European Review of Social Psychology found that anger leads to less profitable outcomes in the negotiation process — a conclusion that applied not only to interpersonal anger (when the other party is angry at you) but also to intrapersonal anger (being angry at the other party). In the study, college students were instructed to negotiate the sale of a smartphone against an opponent. What they didn’t know was that the “opponent” was actually part of the study, following a script to either express anger or incite it. For the latter condition, the opponents were instructed to make participants angry with the statement, “Wow, such an offer can only be made by a stupid person,” which typically led to more anger and, in turn, to “lower joint individual gains,” the researchers wrote.

If this study is any indication, we don’t just negotiate poorly when the other party is angry; our haggling skills decline when we’re angry, too. In other words, if you’re the angry shark, you might toss out worse deals than you would if you were calm. Luckily, though, social science has also come up with a couple ways to turn the situation around, from an angry one into something more mutually beneficial.

One way to keep aggression at bay is to have a goal or a plan in place before the negotiation even starts. In the European Review of Social Psychology study, some subjects were put in what the researchers called a “set goal” condition and were told to negotiate persistently no matter how their opponent responded; others were put in an “if-then plan” condition, with the following instructions: “If my opponent makes a demand, then I will remind myself that s/he depends on me as much as I depend on her/him, and I will stick to my offer.” While persistence was effective in dealing with aggressive opponents, having an if-then plan in place was even more useful — the negotiators equipped with this plan conceded less often, and ended up with outcomes as profitable people in situations where neither negotiator was angry.

In a separate study, published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the same researchers wanted to look at how well these solutions worked with low-power negotiators, or subjects who entered the negotiation at a disadvantage. Think a desperate entrepreneur asking a rich investor for money, for example, or a job applicant who’s trying to up the salary offer while competing against a dozen other candidates. Once again, the authors put their participants in different negotiation scenarios, assigning some to a “high power” condition while setting up others to feel powerless. In one experiment, for example, when the low-power participants named the salary they were hoping to receive in a new job, the “employer” would respond with statements like, “You should seriously consider whether you want this job or not. I don’t see us reaching an agreement this way.” The high-power participants in the same scenario, on the other hand, were instead reminded that they had numerous job offers they could fall back on.

To prepare for the negotiation, some of the low-power participants were told to set the following goal: “I will negotiate tenaciously and claim as many points as possible.” Others were told to stick to a plan: “If my opponent makes a request or tries to put me under pressure, then I will not be swayed and budge from my offer in small steps only.” Consistent with the other study, the low-power subjects negotiated better when they set goals and had an if-then plan in place. In fact, their results were the same as negotiators in the high-power condition. In this particular experiment, having a goal was slightly more effective than having a plan; overall, though, both solutions worked well for participants.

Part of your if-then plan can also include a script of exactly how you’ll respond — in fact, thinking through your words ahead of time is a useful addition no matter how you plan to approach things. “Acknowledge the position of the other side and restate your position in the same sentence,” says Dr. Lauren Appio, a psychologist and career coach in Manhattan. “For example, ‘I understand that you would like to see this happen, and from my position, I need for this to occur.’ Using ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ here will help you avoid invalidating the position or needs of the other person, which may escalate their aggression.”

This language also suggests that you’re not exactly rejecting the offer — you’re simply trying to come up with a mutually beneficial outcome. Thinking about negotiating in terms of how both parties will benefit can go a long way toward mitigating aggression, Appio says. It makes sense: When the focus is on value rather than loss, it’s much easier to keep defensiveness, and therefore aggression, at bay. And whether you’re dealing with a shark, a pushy car salesman, or a boss who won’t seem to budge, that’s a worthy goal.

The Shy Person’s Guide to Handling an Aggressive Negotiator