I was surprised. Instead of working with me to resolve the challenge we unexpectedly faced, he immediately said he would see me in court and didn’t express any regret for partially contributing to the situation.
His seemingly knee-jerk reaction was not a smart negotiation move.
One, I had reviewed our agreement before our conversation and, as a lawyer, I knew his chances of success in court would be extremely slight.
Two, his threat foreclosed any real possibility that we would work out a deal as I had little interest in a business relationship with someone whose first reaction was to threaten litigation.
And three, he was in a service business, and it doesn’t pay to leave dissatisfied customers in the marketplace.
After taking some time to think about our conversation and then finding another vendor to help me out, I canceled our agreement even though it included a penalty fee. But it still left a bad taste in my mouth, and it prompted me to consider a few elements of professionalism that I follow in all my negotiations and business dealings.
1. Legal rights represent the floor: This vendor had no legal obligation to work with me to resolve the challenge we unexpectedly faced. And while he had partially caused it, he had no legal liability for any damages resulting from it.
But just because you have a legal right does not mean you should exercise it from a negotiation perspective. And just because you may not have any legal obligation does not mean you should refuse to work with your counterpart to resolve a sticky situation. In short, distinguish between your legal rights and what makes strategic sense in the negotiation.
Business-wise, I often go above and beyond what I’m legally obligated to do. And I almost always give my counterparts the benefit of the doubt if I have any question about their performing their legal obligations. Also, be wary if your counterpart doesn’t appear to reciprocate this attitude, especially if the negotiation involves a potential future relationship.
If your counterpart’s knee-jerk reaction involves the threat of future litigation, walk away if that’s a viable alternative. His or her mindset will likely cause problems later.
2. Tempers and foul language: After I canceled our agreement, this vendor let loose with a stream of invectives that I can’t repeat here. But it was pretty shocking.
Did he feel better after venting? I don’t know. Did this make sense from a negotiation perspective? No.
Look, everyone has a temper, and at times it will boil over. But rarely does this help in any negotiation. And if it does inadvertently come out, it almost always makes sense to apologize as quickly as possible and move forward. Most will understand. Foul language has no place in most negotiation environments.
Many years ago, a lawyer thought he could intimidate me in a negotiation by using foul language in front of my client. Not only was it ineffective, but it also reflected poorly on his law firm and his partners, all of whom were indirectly impacted by his lack of professionalism.
3. Common courtesy and civility: Finally, I try to return every phone call as soon as I can (I consider this common courtesy) and make a practice of treating everyone with the utmost civility and respect.
Even if they don’t treat you the same way and you vigorously disagree with their point of view, we have a fundamental obligation as fellow human beings to adhere to a certain level of professional conduct and discourse in all our interactions with others.
Of course, this can be hard. We might feel personally offended by the words and actions of others. And it’s tempting to respond in kind.
But lowering yourself to their level rarely accomplishes anything productive and may easily harm your reputation — one of the most critical factors in all your negotiations. In fact, responding in kind often just confirms to them that they got to you.
So don’t give them the satisfaction that their unacceptable behavior has somehow worked. That simply will encourage them to continue their disrespectful ways — a bad outcome for everyone.
Published November 5, 2004 The Business Journal