A successful businesswoman once asked me to negotiate for her in buying out her partner’s interest in a piece of property.
The negotiation, as sometimes occurs in partnership disputes gone bad, was ugly. Unfortunately, their relationship was poor. In fact, at one point, this businesswoman suggested I portray her as acting irrationally.
“Tell (my partner) I’m extremely upset,” she told me, “and tell him I’m just not acting rationally.”
I didn’t think this would be an effective strategy. Her partner knew her well and knew she had not succeeded in business by acting irrationally in significant financial disputes. In other words, it wouldn’t be credible and would likely backfire.
Negotiating with Irrational People is Difficult
But this businesswoman intuitively knew that it’s extremely difficult to effectively negotiate with irrational individuals. Have you ever tried to negotiate with someone whose judgment has been so clouded with emotion that he or she literally can’t think straight? It’s tough.
Oftentimes, we respond by simply giving in. Irrational behavior makes us uneasy, and it increases our tendency to concede as this relieves our discomfort.
So what should you do when faced with irrational behavior or an irrational counter-party?
1. Take a Breath
First, take a deep breath. This is not your garden-variety negotiation and it will require you to dig deeper than usual into your negotiation toolbox.
For instance, it’s critical to initially determine, to the extent possible, if your counter-party is truly irrational or is just trying to appear irrational as a negotiation ploy. Unfortunately, this is not an exact science. Yet, you can find out important clues in this regard by thoroughly researching the person’s reputation.
2. Look for Clues – Is It an Act?
Then closely observe and evaluate the sincerity of your counter-party’s allegedly irrational actions. Listen carefully to what that person is telling you – verbally and nonverbally.
Are their actions consistently irrational, or is their irrational behavior limited to certain instances or episodic in nature? The more limited and inconsistent the irrational behavior, the more likely it’s a ploy.
Perhaps the most famous “irrational” negotiation ploy involved former Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. It occurred at the United Nations when Krushchev practically woke up the world by pounding his shoe on a table to emphasize a point.
Our natural response? Give him whatever he wants. He’s crazy, and he’s got his finger on the nuclear trigger. We can’t take the chance that he’ll push it, so we better concede.
A published photo of Krushchev’s shoe-pounding antic later found him with two shoes on his feet while he pounded a third shoe on the table.
So what should we do with the Krushchevs of this world?
3. If It’s an Act, Let Them Know You Know, & Treat Them as Rational
Find an opportunity to openly point out our knowledge of their acting talents. Then treat them like any other rational but tricky negotiation opponent.
4. If They Are Irrational, Find Out Why
What if you determine your counter-party really is irrational or their judgment truly has been temporarily clouded?
Explore the reasons underlying their irrational behavior. Find out why they’re so consumed with anger that they can’t listen to reason. Perhaps it’s a personality conflict. Or perhaps an unrelated event has put them into this temporary state of mind.
5. Address the Cause, or Change Negotiation Parties
Once you know the reason, you likely will be able to address it. If it’s an irreconcilable personality conflict, change the negotiation parties. Ask to speak to your counter-party’s boss or colleague.
Alternatively, you could ask your own colleague to negotiate on your behalf.
6. If It’s Related to Recent Events, Take a Break
If it’s an emotional outburst or related to a recent traumatic event, take a break. Given sufficient time, individuals often will become more reasoned and reasonable.
And if none of this works, re-evaluate your leverage and your alternative to this agreement. How much do you really need or want an agreement with an irrational individual?
After all, terminating the negotiation may be your only rational course of action.
Published December 22, 2000 The Business Journal