Dealing with an Irrational Negotiator


“How can I negotiate with someone who is irrational?” It’s a common question from exasperated dealmakers, both novices and veterans alike. The answer, unfortunately, is not straightforward. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to dealing with an irrational negotiator.

All the negotiation methods you have been taught and all your well-planned strategies become completely useless when the person across the table is acting in an unexpected and unreasonable way. The first impulse may be to just walk away; however, there’s one thing you should do before giving up on the deal: dig deeper.

Look beneath the surface, and you may come across mainly three types of irrational negotiators: those who are irrational due to a specific reason, those who pretend to be irrational for bargaining power, and the minority of hopelessly irrational people who are better left alone.

Irrationality with a rational explanation

More often than not, an apparently foolish or self-destructive stand may have some rationality behind it. Those people are not irrational; they just appear to be so from your perspective. According to Negotiation Genius, the work of Max H. Bazerman and Malhotra, apparent irrationality could be due to three reasons:

1. Lack of information

When certain critical information is missing, or if they have been misinformed, people may act in seemingly unreasonable ways. If you suspect that, involve a neutral third party to present all the facts of the case. Many a misunderstanding and costly litigations can be avoided by this simple proactive step.

2. Constraints beyond their control

A negotiator may be rejecting reasonable proposals or refusing even simple demands solely because it is beyond his or her capacity to do otherwise. Executives often operate under strict guidelines; these may act as a constraint to be flexible in their negotiations, and prevent them from taking rational decisions. If your tactful probing detects this situation, discussing the matter with a higher authority in the negotiator’s organization may bear fruit. You may have to involve your senior executives too.

3. Hidden agenda

When a negotiator does not accept a deal you think is extremely favourable to him or her, there could be some conflict of interest that you may not be aware of. It may be very personal in nature; ego issues also may be involved. Trying to analyze it from the other person’s perspective may help you identify the reason for the irrational behaviour and save the situation.

Irrationality as a strategy

Some people may be using the cloak of irrationality as a deliberate negotiating strategy. You may come across two types of people in this category.

1. The intimidators

They might have been successful in forcing people into unreasonable business deals before. Whatever you do, don’t give in to their demands, advises Dr. Chester Karrass of Harvard Business School. They will only become more demanding. On the other hand, pretending to walk away may sometimes make them suddenly reasonable.

2. The intimidated

People with low self-esteem may take a stubborn stand just to mask their lack of negotiation skills. Toning down your own display of skills, and explaining the mutual benefits of the deal in plain language, may win their trust and confidence. It may remove the hurdles in closing the deal too.

The hopelessly irrational negotiator

In some cases, it may be neither practical, nor worth your time and effort, to play the psychoanalyst. If your repeated efforts at closing a fair deal have been futile, and the person refuses to involve others in the negotiation, it’s time to back off. Invest your time elsewhere.

Stitt Feld Handy Group offers training in communication skills, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and alternative dispute resolution for large and small businesses, using the latest adult education techniques. Contact us today to learn more about how to get started.

Radek Cecha :: About Author :: Email

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