How can you better approach negotiations with a particularly difficult client?

Negotiating with Putin: Navigating difficult client relationships


For the past few years, Russia has dominated the headlines. It seems like they are in a constant state of push and pull with the United States – whether it is arguing over alleged instances of state-sponsored cybercrime or lengthy attempts at formulating a cease fire in Syria. While the hectic state of the modern world undoubtedly fuels this fire, it doesn’t help that one volatile figure sits at the top of it all: Vladimir Putin.

Brokering deals with Putin is no easy task but we have seen that it is possible, as NATO supreme allied commander James Stavridis explained in a contributing article for Foreign Policy.

While we don’t specialise in foreign policy here at ICML, we do specialise in the art of negotiation – something Putin and the US have a lot to teach us about.

Negotiations are often a delicate process but are an important function of leadership.Negotiations are often a delicate process but are an important function of leadership.

Taking some tips for Putin – Negotiating with tricky clients

Though you certainly won’t be facing the likes of a disgruntled Russian leader anytime soon, there is an important leadership lesson to be learned here.

Difficult clients are a reality of any business and, as a leader, you need to be able to approach meetings and negotiations with them in an expert fashion. So – what can we learn from James Stavridis’ expert insights? Let’s take a look:

1. Take the time to understand the context

The first step to approaching a negotiation with Putin – or any Russian government official – is understanding how Russia views the world and themselves. They are an intensely proud people and are generally distrusting of any and all Western powers.

You want to take the time to see things from your client’s perspective.

To some degree, this is a lesson in empathy – you want to take the time to see things through their eyes. Understanding this context and lens will help dictate how you approach the conversation.

For clients, this is all about the prep work. Ask yourself: Where does the company currently stand? What are their values? How do they operate? According to Harvard Business Review (HBR) contributor Carolyn O’Hara, prep work is the most important part of any negotiation. You need to go in with reference points and research into how a client handles negotiations on the whole.

2. Accept their personality type

Understanding and empathy go beyond data and organisational structures. Before any negotiation it is important to try and understand as much as you can about your client’s temperament. With Putin, it’s common knowledge that he has a ‘strong man’ demeanour, he believes he is the head honcho and responds to firm demands over gentle suggestions.

Taking the time to remember past meetings or gather information from colleagues about a client’s personality can be beneficial to the negotiation process. When you understand how a client presents themself it can better position you to structure your negotiation terms in a manner that he/she will respond to.

Understanding a client's personality can be an important piece of the negotiation puzzle.Understanding a client’s personality can be an important piece of the negotiation puzzle.

3. Prepare to invest some time

Negotiations with world leaders aren’t something that happen overnight. Brokering peace accords and cease fires require significant time investments.

While business deals aren’t quite as touchy, you can’t expect negotiations to happen instantly. While it would be ideal to come to a viable solution after a single hour-long meeting, things don’t always work out this way. In fact, sometimes multiple meetings over weeks will be necessary. Respect the process and don’t force a solution that doesn’t fit.

4. Be ready for all scenarios

Negotiating with Putin requires a considerable level of flexibility. Leaders need to be prepared to consider options they hadn’t considered before. While prep is key, there is no way to predict every given scenario in a negotiation so a willingness to change former plans is important – as long as you keep your core intentions in place.

Sometimes this may even involve walking away from the discussion to head back to the drawing board, according to O’Hara. If a client puts a risky new proposition on the table, it’s worth your time to review it carefully and decide whether or not the option works for your team.

Negotiation, like any business skill, is something that needs to be learned over time.

Beyond Putin

While Putin provides an interesting backdrop for negotiations, there are obviously some more general tips to keep in mind during the negotiation process. One of the biggest things to remember is to really listen to your client and ask questions that reflect that you are tuned in.

As we will emphasise every time in our negotiation skills training programs: listening with the intent to understand is one the best ways to build trust, even with the most temperamental of clients. People want to know they are being heard and demonstrating that through thoughtful questions will open up the doors for a more trusting relationships – and, ultimately, better negotiations.

Negotiation, like any business skill, is something that needs to be learned over time. While all these tips are clear starting points, the act of making a deal can be a complex process that may require some formal negotiation skills training. Invest in your development and your negotiation skills will be sure to follow.

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