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
After a verbally attacted by a person later acting as though nothing happened leaving the victim emotionally abused/drained……how does the victim get through it with no scars?
Good question. This calls to mind an excellent quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Just because someone says something insulting that does not make it true. Even though it is easier to say than to remember in the heat of the moment, remember that the story you tell yourself determines how it affects you emotionally. Recognize their tactic and keep your cool. When faced with rudeness or abuse, point out their obvious attempts to divert from the main topic and steer the conversation back to the agreed upon agenda. If you suspect you’ll have a verbally combative opponent, try to create ground rules before beginning the negation that both agree to and can be held to. For example, you might say: “Look, 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.”
What if the agenda is that you made a mistake and the other party verbally attacks you and does not accept your explanation but instead their emotions get heightened and yells even louder?
Hi AJ. Thanks for your question. If they are simply shouting down anything you say, then keep your cool, and request that all parties take at least a 20 minute break. This can allow emotions to cool. It will give you a chance to regroup and adjust your strategy. For more tips on handling this check out this article. Remember they may be behaving irrationally or overly combatively as a strategy. If that could be the case consider these tips on handling irrational behavior in negotiations.
Thank you for your useful information. I was recently publicly attacked at a work meeting by a colleague. A few weeks prior to the meeting I warned the colleague that the topic at hand was going to blow up and cautioned her to tread carefully. I am baffled that she took the warning as a threat and she responded by publicly berating me in a meeting in front of 30 colleagues. When she completed her attack I turned to my colleagues in the room to issue an apology saying that we don’t speak to each other in this way and would like to return to the topic at hand. Everyone obliged. Nonetheless, I am feeling extremely hurt and I am not sure how to make it past the issue with this co-worker. I have spent the past couple of days trying to empathize and I understand where she’s coming from.
Hi Angela, Thanks for your question. It sounds like in this case, your kind-hearted attempt at advice was really misunderstood. In situations like that, it’s critical to be strategic in how you communicate advice or urge someone to change their course of action. To quote http://www.eiconsortium.org, a website with some excellent resources on emotional intelligence, “The way to help someone learn and change, they say, cannot be focused primarily on fixing problems, but instead must connect to that person’s positive vision of themselves or an inspiring dream or goal they’ve long held…The way to help someone learn and change, they say, cannot be focused primarily on fixing problems, but instead must connect to that person’s positive vision of themselves or an inspiring dream or goal they’ve long held.” So that could look like, “I know you like the whole team to agree on this. How are you going to lead the team to foster agreement?” That might help the next time you need to discuss a hot button issue with a colleague, but what about how to handle this current awkward situation? Some of the tips included in “Pay Attention to Core Emotions to Help Negotiations” may help you communicate with her and work with her need for autonomous decision making. If that’s not enough to fix the problem, and having a good relationship with your co-worker is essential, consider some of these communication techniques. Don’t forget that expressing how her public outburst made you feel may help to diffuse the situation. When dealing with an argumentative colleague expressing “how it made you feel,” is hard to argue with and less likely to be perceived as a threat. This is different than “You make me feel…”, which invites arguments. Invite her to express her perspective to better understand her. If you’re having trouble empathizing, hearing it from her could help. But use your best judgement on whether this last course of action is needed and feels appropriate.
Sometimes you get personal attack even if you haven’t did anything wrong. I think that effectively responding to personal attacks is an important skill which everyone should learn. We have also worked on this topic. I personally have dealt such situations many times in my life. Earlier I was always worried when i had to join public talks but now I have learnt the skills. I suggest everyone should learn the skill to handle this because It really hurts to be insulted in public.