Never negotiate with a bully

Never negotiate with a bully

I once worked on a small strategy team for a very difficult woman, who on a good day was a bully. On a bad day, she was pathological. But she taught me a lesson that stuck with me: never negotiate with a bully.

One of my close colleagues and friends on this team was an amazing guy, named George, who was as talented, educated, and decent as human beings come. He often worked four-day weeks, so he could fly home to his family on the weekends, with our boss’ full knowledge and blessing.

One week, George returned to work a half day later than usual, following a surgery on his young son. Our boss claimed she hadn’t known about his schedule change, which was hard to believe because everyone knew. Regardless, she completely snapped.

“I gave you a gift with these long weekends. Now I’m taking that gift away,” she said pettily.

George tried to remind her that he’d told her of this unexpected surgery the week before. She ignored him.

Those of us who loved him felt sucker punched. It was arbitrary, ugly, and unwinnable. George felt humiliated, defeated, and stuck.

Knowing he was out of plays, I said to him, “You cannot work for her any longer.”

So we did everything we could to help him find a new job quickly. A couple of short months later, George accepted a job near his family with relief and renewed confidence.

You just can’t reason with a bully. 

George’s best option, really his only one, was to stop playing this woman’s games.

Sometimes, however, you have to switch the game. That was the case with my friend, who called me in a panic. Her daughter, Rebecca, had just started a new job in Florida, but found out three days after starting that they were paying her 25% less than originally agreed.

“Let’s call Rebecca,” I said to break through the panic.

Rebecca explained how the owner of the company recruited her for months. And she had been clear what she needed to accept a job with his company.

He agreed to all of it. Then, after she had already started, he gave her an offer letter with none of these things.

He’d lied. He’d promised something, then taken it away.

And he’d used information she’d shared about her family and finances against her, making it difficult for her to walk away despite the lower pay.

She’d been duped by a bully.

“It happens to all of us,” I assured her.

Like George, Rebecca felt betrayed, belittled, afraid, and trapped. She hadn’t been physically threatened, but the effect was the same. Our brains send these signals and emotions whether our kids are about to be eaten by lions, our bosses behave like lunatics, or someone threatens our financial well-being.

But the owner of the company had made a mistake: he’d revealed himself as a bully (and a dick).

Once she wasn’t feeling so triggered and stuck, Rebecca could work with that information.

So we slowed everything down for her – and her mom, whose anxiety was not helping her daughter.

Separate emotions from strategy.

Before Rebecca could act, she had to get her brain back online.

First, we helped her decouple valid, but unhelpful, emotions from strategy. Clear thinking and strategies, not panic, were crucial to regaining her footing.

Her initial instinct was to plead her case to the owner, who’d been friendly with her. “That might work with a reasonable person,” I said. “But now you know you’re not dealing with a reasonable person. You’re dealing with a bully.”

And bullies have a way of pouncing on perceived weakness. Like George’s decency or Rebecca’s financial needs. After reality sunk in, Rebecca agreed not to act while she felt so vulnerable.

Forget winning and losing.

Next, we conceded she would not “win” a negotiation with this guy. From a traditional negotiating perspective, Rebecca had little leverage. But this concession didn’t prevent Rebecca from reclaiming her dignity. And that required options.

At face value, Rebecca’s options sounded bleak: stay at lower pay, confront a bully, or leave without a job.

So we invented an alternative that Rebecca (and her mom) could live with: if Rebecca kept the job at lower pay in order to pay the bills, she would immediately start looking for a better job – with the help of her mom and me.

This plan made an awful situation manageable in the very short-term.

Then we slowed things down even more by creating boundaries.

And boundaries build bravery.

We all knew for Rebecca to regain her confidence she had to talk with this guy. But it wouldn’t be with the expectation of higher pay or standing up to him. She would talk to him only to prove to herself that she could.

And to do that, she had to know what she would not say to him. Certain topics would be off limits and none of his business, especially how bad she felt and anything about her kids.

Rebecca also practiced not talking. Too much talking always backfires when dealing with bullies.

Her message had to be clear, brief, precise, and totally neutral.

Practice with precision.

We tried a few sentences until we had one that met all four of those criteria: clear, brief, precise, neutral.

Then we practiced for almost an hour having Rebecca say only three words, “You said ninety.

We practiced removing all emotion and blame out of her voice. And knowing that strong emotion leads to high-pitch, Rebecca practiced lowering her voice deeper than normal. That was both hilarious – and effective.

In that lower register we could hear her confidence and determination re-emerge.

Finally, Rebecca rehearsed repeating this sentence if he countered with anything. “You said ninety.” This became a mantra to focus her in an unsettling situation with someone who seemed to have the upper hand.

The strategies, alternatives, boundaries, preparation, and repetition would help her avoid traps in this very brief conversation. Even if they didn’t change her pay.

The next day, however, Rebecca texted that her salary was now $90,000. And the owner mumbled something about a misunderstanding. In not negotiating with this bully, she had unexpectedly called his bluff.

carolyn solares
I help people think through sticky situations and strategies.
Work with me at murphymerton.
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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
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