Negotiating with Difficult People aka Boxing with Assholes

My two recent posts on ‘Negotiating with Sociopaths’ and ‘Negotiating with Narcissists’ seem to have been well received., so I post an edited version of the advice I recently gave a friend of mine, who is having to deal with a  asshole in the sense of the book ‘The No Asshole Rule‘ by Robert Sutton, who uses the term for ‘kiss up, kick down’ demoralizers like John Bolton, George W Bush’s UN Ambassador.

Here are my ‘boxing with asshole’ tips for the record, with a few adds. And take my word for it, I have dealt with some Nobel Prize winning assholes in my time. To work, you actually have to do the prep seriously….:and obviously judge the power situation and don’t get smashed unnecessarily…..or try it on your boss tomorrow….

  1. Mental Preparation for meeting with assholes: prepare to be unpleasantly surprised, and think ‘steel fist in velvet glove’ thoughts. And meditate on your self- worth…
  2. Content Preparation: write FAQs: likely questions or things they might say, given the content/context of expected meeting. For each FAQ write a good content answer and also a good counter question, samples below, but also have some specifics, like what data supports that XYZ approach? Alternate between content answer response and another question to keep ‘em guessing.
  3. Take Notes: When they are being particularly nasty, take notes of what they are saying and ask them to repeat what they have just said, as you didn’t quite understand it. ‘Run that by me again’….Taking notes of people saying nasty things is quite disconcerting….I did it all the time in meetings. Best if sitting down and watch them while you write; but carry a pad you can write on standing up with a pen clipped on top…
  4.  Generic counter questions:

o What makes you think that?
o How has this worked in the past?
o Why would you want to do that?
o Why? And then why about their answer up to five times like a four year old….
o Is that a put down?
o What would you feel if I said that to you?
o Tell me more about this?
o Why do you think that?
o What else have you considered? (Especially good for those who never consider alternatives)
o How can I help you/best support you in this area?
o Where did you get that understanding of what our bosses want in this area?

5. Questions of Your Own: Have 20 questions of your own about how they handle, this, what the plan is, what the rationale is, what is going on etc so you can vector the meeting in a different direction if need be..

6. Body Posture: breathe and punch from your core but stay centered and ready to move onto back foot, dodge and weave a bit and smile inside…

7. Response Time: Count: beat, 1, 2, 3 before responding so you are in control

8. Use Silence:  Silence is the negotiator’s best friend…especially if it is clearly not subjugated silence but stand your ground silence which you invite them to fill….

9. Eye contact: Keep relaxed eye contact; only break off eye contact upwards or sideways never downwards. Narrowing left eye in response to insults can be helpful.

10. Practice facial expressions in the mirror like an actress to cover these inner unexpressed thoughts:
o Do you think I was born yesterday?
o Are you getting in touch with your inner seven year old and we have to watch?
o I can’t believe you are saying this
o Would that argument convince you?
o What an interesting performance you are putting on. Did your tantrum always work with your Mum?
o Do I look like someone you should fuck with?
• (Note there is a brilliant compilation of Hilary Clinton in front of a Senate Committee on Benghazi doing exactly this sort of drill. See
Hilary is a Nobel Prize winner and it apparently left her questioners crapping themselves when she then turned on them…)

11. Emotional Control: Keep from getting emotional yourself by focusing on their own lack of control…

12. After the Meeting do an After Action Review: See what went well, what not so well, what would you do differently next time, in a learning, non-self-judgmental way

Think of all this as a process and try to watch it from the sidelines…

Footnote: Air Cover: I had a boss we called ‘Surly and Ungrateful’, who was constantly messing with me and causing mayhem with the unions. One of my air cover supporters outside the plant, who had heard that my boss was being an asshole, arranged for the Vice President of Labor Affairs, world wide, who was on a visit in the area to drop by and see the plant and meet the plant manager. During a one on one discussion, the VP asked the plant manager how I was doing and got a non-committal response. So he said to my boss the plant manager: ‘You know there is one thing you need to know very clearly about my guy here. If you fuck with him, you fuck with me: got that’ shook his hands, said nice visit, and walked out of his office…..I had no more troubles with the plant manager…

And here is a good image from the movie ‘Million Dollar Baby’: Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood: front foot, back foot, dodge, feint, jab, jab, jab with right, hook with left….and notice the nice assessing facial expression from Clint…


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Humor, Conflict Processes, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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