I recently participated in a mediator training on dealing with difficult people at Multidoor Dispute Resolution. The training was conducted by David C. Batson, Esq. David has over thirty years of dispute resolution experience spanning all major environmental programs.
David was an excellent presenter who talked about three different types of difficult people. Those who are situationally difficult are facing a stressful life situation. They may react in an out-of-proportion way to a situation with angry and irrational responses and demands. Others are simply difficult -- highly defensive, preoccupied with blaming others, often extremely intelligent, and desperate to receive validation for themselves. Last, some people are strategically difficult -- they use "being difficult" as a tactic to get something they want from you. David says you know that this tactic is occurring because you feel that they are up to something, they will modify behavior within bounds, they try to convince you to play by their rules, and you've ruled out that they are situationally difficult.
We talked about numerous strategically difficult negotiating tactics that are often used by the parties during a mediation. David gave us some excellent counters to these tactics that we can use as mediators. Here are a few of my favorites with which I've had personal experience:
• False Deadlines -- This happens when a party creates an arbitrary time pressure to force an agreement. David suggests questioning the cause. "What's creating the time pressure? Is there anything that can be done to relieve the deadline pressure?" He also advises determining what happens after the deadline. "What if we don't make it?" Last, he suggests a trade. "What if I could take more time but come back with a better deal?"
• Bullying -- A party will pick on someone and minimize that person and his or her ideas in front of others. Countering a bully involves being prepared. Advance research may prepare the mediator to expect bullying. Another response to bullying is to shine a light on the bully's behavior. "Do you believe that the best approach is to intimidate?"
• Bulldozing -- You might be familiar with this tactic. A bulldozer keeps going without pause until he or she gets what he or she wants. A bulldozer does not let anyone get a word in edgewise. Counter to bulldozing? Disrupt the pace. Periodically stop the speaker to summarize and record understanding. Interrupt and ask "Do you have have anything new to add on this point?"
Other strategically difficult negotiating tactics -- and counters to these tactics -- we discussed included good cop/bad cop, take it or leave it, passive aggressive, silence, red herring, outrageous behavior, ganging up, surprise information, the bluff, withdrawal, and threats. Let me know what other tactics you may have encountered in working with difficult people and what counters you have used that have worked well!
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.