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Is it (Im)possible to Negotiate with a Bully?

Is it (Im)possible to Negotiate with a Bully?

  • João Gomes • Partner @ JASON Moçambique

This article is related to Russia’s recent war against Ukraine, and the successive failed ceasefire negotiations that took place in the meantime. In this article I invite my [email protected] to try to answer the question: Is it (im)possible to negotiate with a bully?

Let’s look at it successively:

  1. Negotiation as a form of conflict resolution.
  2. What is negotiation bullying?
  3. How to overcome the (Im)possibility of negotiating with a bully?
  4. Negotiation as one of the ways of conflict resolution.

When different parties (v.g. individual or groups or communities or regions or nations or countries, and, more recently, economic and/or political blocs)

  • have needs whose satisfaction implies the sharing of resources,
  • of a tangible or intangible nature (v.g. arable land; water; access to the sea, money, etc.),
  • assets which are finite and, therefore, scarce,
  • and there is no commonly accepted mechanism
  • for the distribution of these scarce resources,
  • these parties come into conflict,
  • with the intention of appropriating these assets.

And there are basically three modes of appropriation of (or, in the affirmative, modes of conflict management over) scarce resources among homo sapiens:

  • Use of Power and Force (v.g., through war).
  • Use of Law (e.g., through arbitration and the courts).
  • Use of Negotiation (e.g., through voluntary conciliation of interests).

However, as civilization advanced, homo sapiens abandoned the use of power and force to give priority to the remaining means of conflict resolution/appropriation of scarce resources: the use of Law; the use of Negotiation. Not without exceptions, unfortunately, as evidenced by the aforementioned war!

  1. What is negotiation bullying?

In my opinion, in order to be considered negotiation bullying, the behavior of one of the parties towards the weaker contracting party should, cumulatively, have the following characteristics

(a) Being aggressive. Bullying can be classified into four types: verbal, social, physical and property damage.

Verbal bullying is saying or writing something that is cruel or intentional and includes acts such as making inappropriate comments or threats, causing pain, stress, suffering and loss, making outrageous demands, insisting on your position and threatening to walk away from the negotiation.

Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships and includes spreading rumors or causing intentional public embarrassment.

Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body and includes actions such as making them wait, creating an uncomfortable physical environment (v.g. hot/cold), taking their belongings.

The fourth type of bullying involves any kind of intentional damage to the weak contractor’s property, using tactics such as asking for very low prices today with the “promise” of more business in the future.

b) Being repeated over time: this is not a one-time act. The bully derives pleasure from his actions, usually always repeating the bad behavior and at different stages of the negotiation process: from the initial moment of setting the negotiation agenda, to the close of the negotiation where, usually and at the last minute, he asks for one more final concession, and beyond, in the next negotiation!

c) Involving a real or apparent power imbalance between the parties: apparently, the bully is invariably in a position of power

  • either in the role of boss2;
  • or in the role of customer (typically, at the C-level, or in the procurement sector)3;
  • or in the role of negotiating representative;
  • or in the role of authority; or in the role of “elder”.

The asymmetry of power is present, and the bully uses and abuses this prerogative in the sense of putting the weak contractor always on the defensive. And he thinks in terms of win-lose, so they always have to win and the others always have to lose.

d) And whose intention is to dominate, control or harm the counterpart: or, in other words, the bully, driven by the fear of being out of control, with low self-esteem, wants to turn the negotiation into a power game, thus mixing and shuffling two of the three modes of appropriation of scarce resources among homo sapiens.

In a recent study4 it proved that the collaborative style (Win-Win), which was chosen by 50% of the respondents as their stated negotiation style, only 2.6% of the total sample was in practice conducting negotiations in this style⁵. Or, in other words, i) we are not able to recognize our own negotiating style; ii) and the tendency is to adopt non-collaborative styles (Win-Loose).

“The asymmetry of power is present and the bully uses and abuses this prerogative in the sense of putting the weak contractor always on the defensive. And he thinks in terms of win-lose…”

  1. How to overcome the (Im)possibility of negotiating with a bully?

In “Roadmap for Negotiation”⁶ we formulated – inspired by Harvard`s Program on Negotiation⁷ – based on 14 negotiation levers, a method⁸ to answer this question.

In this, a series of negotiating tactics and anti-tactics have been formulated to attack the heart of bully negotiating behavior, respectively:

  • Maintaining objectivity (the “eye on the prize”), not reacting to provocations, using patience and silence to disarm and dissipate the level of aggression.
  • Changing the intent and focus of the game: reframing from a process of power and force, to one of collaborative conflict resolution.
  • Leverage our power by weakening the bully’s power and thus balance the balance of power by making it easier to say “Yes” and harder to say “No” to our negotiating value proposition.
  • Prevent the repetition, over time, of predatory practices.
  • And build and maintain a better alternative to the present deal (“Have a Plan B”).

In conclusion

Negotiating with a bully is not sailing on a sea of calm waters: but those do not make good sailors.

The bully tries incessantly, from the first hour and until the last moment, to WIN, using methods close to brute force, the biggest slice of the negotiating cake, and at the expense of the interests of the weak counterpart.

And if the reader thinks that the strategy of giving in to the bully’s pressures is the right one, be wrong: they rarely stop the bully from wanting more…and more!

See Also

As negotiators, our job is not to lose sight of our negotiating objective, to know how to dissipate the level of aggressiveness, to change the rules of the game, and to make it known that the only way for the bully to win is to cooperate.

But above all, to make sure that we are not the bully in the room.

1Maslow’s Pyramid or Theory of Human Needs. This model, developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, suggests that we human beings are motivated in satisfying five basic needs: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem, and personal achievement.

2 GOMES, João “YES BOSS”. Article published in Economia & Mercado magazine, August 2020.

3 I remember witnessing the case of a large company that, in the procurement department, and right in view of all the candidates for suppliers, had printed on an A4 sheet glued on the wall, a picture of a towel twisted… and from which blood was dripping!!!!

4 MILLER, Ofir “The negotiation style: a comparative study between the stated and in-practice negotiation style”. West University of Timisoara, 2013.

5 For more details on negotiation styles check out: Pruitt & Rubin “Dual Concerns Model” 1988.

6 JASON Moçambique et GOMES, João “Roadmap for Negotiation – From Price to Value”.

7 FISHER, Roger, et URY, William “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In”

8 This method and trademark are protected in Mozambique: Industrial Property Institute, Registration No. 38857/2019.



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