Newt Gingrich has repeatedly called Mitt Romney a liar. And Romney has incessantly focused on Gingrich’s personal ethics and effectively accused Gingrich of being a sore loser.
And remember the 2008 primary battle between President Barack Obama and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? It was not pretty.
Personal attacks seem to have become the norm in high stakes politics. But business and legal negotiations are not immune. Many years ago a lawyer swore and tried to verbally intimidate me in a negotiation over whether his client had to give us certain documents.
So what can we do about personal attacks?
1. Don’t lower yourself to their level.
I know it’s easier to say this than to do this. It’s hard not to respond in kind when you’re under personal attack. But getting into the gutter is almost always counterproductive and leads to escalation – not resolution.
Instead, be professional and maintain your composure. You will lose if you lose it too.
2. Focus on your goal.
Folks sometimes engage in personal attacks to distract or divert you from the real issues on the table. Perhaps they have weak leverage and the conversation was focused on their poor alternative. Or maybe they thought you would forget about that powerful market value analysis if they came at you personally.
Your response? Keep your goals and interests front and center. Written agendas can help here, too, especially if you anticipated the attacks by researching your counterpart’s reputation.
And it’s even more productive if they’ve agreed to an agenda and ground rules early on. “Look,” you might then say, “I could respond to your personal attacks with equally inflammatory language. But that won’t help either of us. In fact, it will just cause more problems. Instead, let’s focus on what we both initially agreed would be a productive way to negotiate – and that’s by addressing issue X.”
3. Take a break.
Don’t underestimate the power of a cooling off period. But take a break that’s at least 20 minutes long. It usually takes at least that amount of time for their adrenaline surge to dissipate.
Of course, you may want to take a day, week, month or even longer.
4. Consider going over their head.
In some negotiations, especially those involving longstanding business-to-business relationships, consider going over your attacker’s head and requesting a new counterparty. This shouldn’t be a first resort, but sometimes the inherent risk of this move backfiring (if your request is denied) is outweighed by the potential benefit of moving forward productively.
At the least, this will hopefully bring some pressure on your counterpart to behave more professionally.
5. Exercise your leverage.
At the end of the day, your ability to impact your counterpart’s behavior may be mostly dependent upon your fundamental leverage – the value of your alternative (or Plan B) relative to your counterpart’s alternative (or Plan B).
The easier it is for you to walk and the better your Plan B, and the more difficult it is for your counterpart to walk and the worse their Plan B, the higher the likelihood they will avoid personal attacks. So if you have strong leverage, make a move toward your Plan B. Then closely monitor their reaction.
In my negotiation with the lawyer who tried to intimidate me, I simply walked over to the conference room phone and started dialing the judge. It was amazing how quickly his attitude changed.
Published February 3, 2012 The Arizona Republic