When Negotiation Isn’t the Answer

In today’s fast-paced society, we talk a lot about negotiation and how it’s imperative to engage in these negotiations in order to get ahead. And, in general, you should negotiate most things. But what we fail to discuss, is when a negotiation is unhelpful and can actually do more harm than good. 


It’s important to remember that negotiation is simply a tool that you use to meet your needs. This means it is an optional part of difficult conversations. The problem with negotiations in inappropriate circumstances is that for many, compromise and flexibility are important elements of the practice.


Here are some key areas where we shouldn’t be flexible:


1.When negotiating would lead to an unsafe situation

According to the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, it is estimated that approximately 60% of women have experienced some form of sexual harrassment in the workplace. This is only an estimate because harassment is immensely underreported with approximately 70% of employees who have experienced harassment choose not to report it.


The EEOC reports that the most common reactions to harassment are to endure the behavior, attempt to avoid the harasser, downplay the behavior as “not a big deal”, or leave the job instead of addressing the problem. While this should be obvious, no one should ever be made to feel that they need to compromise their safety, psychological well-being, and personal dignity if they feel they are being harassed or abused. Harassment of any form will always cause harm to the victim and can impact psychological or physical health and lead to decreased productivity. 


There should only be one outcome: NO. This is all about power.  It is not about substance but rather, it’s about them exercising dominance, control, and power over you. When it comes to issues like abuse and mistreatment, there can be no negotiation because there can be no compromise. What would that negotiation look like- “Okay, you can harass me a little bit”? This is about power and what we need to do is reclaim your power, respect, and dignity through the upcoming difficult conversation. 


Of course, this is easier said than done. How do we handle these difficult conversations? 


First, stick to the objective facts and the personal impact you felt because people may contend with your interpretation or judgment of the situation. 


For example: “John, your behavior is unacceptable and inappropriate.” 


“John, yesterday you put your hand on my shoulder and touched my hair. This made me feel uncomfortable.” 


In many cases, simply saying this will be enough to get the person to change their behavior because they genuinely may not be aware of the impact of their behavior. Think about when you are driving. How do you feel when someone cuts you off? It’s hard to perceive this as an accident and are quick to lay on the horn or shout obscenities because we feel wronged. But what about when you cut someone off? Usually it’s because we genuinely didn’t see them and, had we been made aware, we wouldn’t have crossed into their lane when we did. 


The key here is to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and a chance to change their behavior. However, sometimes awareness isn’t enough. If the behavior persists, we need to take it to the next level by adding a warning. This is where you do the following: 


  1. Clearly state the behavior in question with objective, incontrovertible facts. 
  2. Clearly outline the impact the behavior had on you. 
  3. Clearly identify what will happen if the behavior persists. 
  4. Say something positive regarding the possible resolution of the situation. 
  5. If necessary, immediately follow through with the consequences outlined in step 3. 


Example: “John, yesterday you put your hand on my shoulder and touched my hair. This made me feel uncomfortable. I mentioned this was an issue last week. 


If this continues, I’m going to have to discuss the situation with human resources and let them come to a solution. However, I don’t want this to happen and I think we can resolve this ourselves. I’ve appreciated your insights on the project and I recognize that we’re going to be working together for the foreseeable future. This is why I think it’s important for us to get past this.”


Obviously, there is no way to get around the awkwardness and tension that will be in these conversations. That’s why it may be worth considering sending this message via email vs. in person. It depends on your comfort level and what makes the most sense given the situation. 


But they wronged me and I want them to admit they’re wrong! 


Yes, they are in the wrong but it’s important to focus on what needs to be the priority: changing the problem behavior itself. It will be exceptionally hard to get someone to admit that they harassed you, especially in the workplace because one, no one wants to admit they’re a harasser and, two, admitting harassment comes with many legal implications- the first of which is possible job loss. 


If you go into a situation requiring the other party to admit fault, most likely you’re going to be met with resistance because accusing someone of bad behavior usually puts them on the defensive and less willing to agree with you. In order to be successful, our goal is to  remove barriers to success. 



2.When a negotiation would compromise personal values

A negotiation suggests an element of concession and compromise. Sure, you may not get everything you want, but it is imperative to not negotiate beyond your bottom line. Your bottom line should be your absolute limit of what you could accept and still feel happy with. 



For example, in healthcare, many of the available jobs are at sites that offer 24 hours of service 7 days a week are common (i.e. a hospital). For me, I know that I will not consider any night shift positions due to the simple fact that I can never seem to regulate my circadian rhythm if I stay up all night, and end up consistently getting really poor quality of sleep (check out Matt Walker’s Ted Talk: Sleep is Your Superpower to learn why you shouldn’t compromise getting good rest). Despite never applying for night shift positions, I have always been asked if I could work the night shift. Since this is my beyond my bottom line, my answer needs to be a solid no.  


We often make the mistake of seeming flaky in our response. For example, hesitation before giving an answer, using the word “maybe”, or saying “let me think about it,” invites uncertainty and suggests to the other party that there is still a window of opportunity. Often, this leads to continued pressure on the issue, giving the other party that much more time to wear you down. This is especially pertinent for women since we are often pushed to compromise the things that are important to us because we’re expected to ‘take one for the team.’



3.When either you or the other party is highly emotional

There is an emotional component behind all of our actions. When our limbic system is activated, it prevents our prefrontal cortex from being able to use our critical thinking skills. There is a reason why they say you shouldn’t make big decisions when you’re upset. When you see this happening, either in yourself or in someone else, it’s important to pause the conversation until those emotions have calmed down. 


For example, as an inpatient psych nurse certified in therapeutic crisis intervention (TCI), it was imperative to understand that everyone on the unit was already in an extreme state of heightened emotions, leaving little room for critical thinking. Many times, something as simple as asking a patient to take their medication felt very overwhelming and would cause huge outbursts. Attempting to reason with a patient and persuade them to comply while they were highly emotional was moot and would instead result in them shutting down. 


In order to be successful, it was important to address the emotional component and simplify the decision-making process for them by offering choices. This allows the other party to feel as though they are still involved in the process and helps them to come to the best conclusion all while minimizing the negative impact of their emotional state.


So what does that look like in practice? 


First, you address and validate the emotion you are observing followed by a calibrated question. 


For example: “If I were in your position, I would be really frustrated too about not being able to go home. What impact do you think not taking your medicine will have on your goal of getting home?” 


Next, allow them to answer and then offer simple options “You can take your medicine now, or after-breakfast”. You may need to do this a couple times in order to help calm those intense emotions and help the other person return to baseline. 


This may seem like a juvenile way to talk to someone, but in times of heightened emotions, it is important to keep it as simple as possible.


 But what if they continue to push back? 


Sometimes there are cases when offering choices is not possible. Often times, continuing to carry on the conversation at this point will cause a power struggle or escalate into verbal abuse. 


In this case, it is important to set a clear boundary and pause the conversation by saying something like, “I can see you’re really upset right now. I am available to continue this conversation when you’re ready to talk.” This makes it clear that you are still open to communication but not until they can calm down. 



4.When the setting is wrong

Consider this scenario: You have been working with another company to negotiate a deal but it is taking a few negotiations to reach an agreement- i.e. it’s not a one-step negotiation. You run into  a member of the other party in the hallway and they try to continue the negotiation with you when you and get you to commit to something when you haven’t had time to prepare. . What should you do? 


The setting and timing of a negotiation has a huge impact on the outcome of a negotiation because you can’t put the proverbial “toothpaste back into the tube” so to speak. When a negotiation is sprung on you, there is a lack of preparation involved which makes us more likely to make mistakes or agree to something we wouldn’t necessarily agree to when we’ve had the time to adequately prepare. This can do more harm to the relationship and break hard earned trust. Again, this is more common amongst women as we get caught in the trap of wanting to preserve the relationship.


In our scenario of the hallway conversation, this would be a great place to work on building the relationship rather than continuing the substantive negotiation. By building the relationship, the other party is much more likely to agree to your terms when they see you as a friend because we become more agreeable the closer we are to someone (think about how many times you agreed to do something for someone close to you but wouldn’t have done that same task for a stranger). 


So what do you do when they try to corner you into a premature negotiation? 


Set boundaries! 


Let them know that you hear that the topic is important to them and want to continue the conversation at a later time when you’ve had the time to think things through or when all members are present. 


Invite them to schedule a meeting if one hasn’t already been scheduled or, if they continue to press, use this time to gather information by asking questions to understand their side but without agreeing to anything. Should they continue to press for an immediate answer beyond that, let them know that if they need an answer right then, that unfortunately, your answer is going to have to be no because they haven’t given you any time to think or prepare. 


This still makes them feel their points are important, but protects you from making a mistake or agreeing to something prematurely. 


In conclusion, all of these areas, while requiring us to engage in difficult conversations, are not areas that should leave room for negotiation. It’s not easy to address someone on the topic of abuse or harassment, it’s not always easy to tell someone you cannot do what they are asking, and it’s not easy to walk into a conversation that you know will most likely result in an argument or disappointment. And sometimes these areas require difficult conversations within, by telling ourselves some honest truths that we don’t always want to hear.



Here are some more resources from the American Negotiation Institute:


Happy Negotiating!


Written by Katherine Knapke RN, BSN – communications & operations manager

Katherine Knapke is the newest addition to our American Negotiation Institute Team! With a background in nursing, Katherine is passionate about using her years of experience as both a psychiatric and school nurse to address the psychological, emotional, and societal concerns that impact women in the workplace. 

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