How to negotiate with bullies

By John Allison

Some lawyers are bullies when they negotiate. They seem to think they can achieve a better result for their client by intimidating the opposing party or opposing counsel.

When negotiating with a bully it is important to remember that a negotiation involves subtle shifts in the balance of power. Avoid doing anything that gives your power away to the bully.  Here are some tips for retaining your power in the negotiation:    

- Stay comfortable with yourself and don’t take the bully’s obnoxious behavior personally. 

- Hold your ground. Look the bully in the eye and know when to avoid blinking or looking down.

- Avoid behaviors that will make you appear to be nervous or uncomfortable. Keep note-taking to a minimum.

- Also avoid becoming defensive or deferential. Remember that it is not your job to make the bully like you.

- Stay on the high road and treat everyone present at the negotiation, including the bully, with respect.

- If you feel power shifting away from you, take a break or start talking about something else to break the shift.

Stay focused on your client’s objective and don’t let yourself get thrown off balance by the bully’s behavior. Be very careful to avoid negotiating against yourself. Showing signs of weakness will only encourage the bully to become more aggressive. If you concede points too quickly, or if you make successive offers in the absence of a meaningful counteroffer, any negotiating leverage you have will disappear. 

While you might be tempted to respond to the bully in kind, it is particularly important when negotiating with a bully to refrain from engaging in reactive adversarial behavior. An adversarial response will only trigger the bully’s own reactivity and cause the negotiation to deteriorate.  Bullies choose to engage in fights they are determined to win. Don’t engage. Instead, adopt the strategy of a martial artist. Deflect the bully’s negative energy and look for opportunities to use it to your advantage. 

If the bully’s obnoxious behavior becomes abusive, politely set firm boundaries. You are not participating in a negotiation in order to take abuse. Be prepared to end the negotiation session if the abusive behavior continues. Walking away from a negotiation can send a powerful message that the opposing party is being represented by a lawyer whose behavior is getting in the way of reaching an agreement.     


John Allison is a professional career coach backed by years of experience as a successful lawyer. He is the founder of The Coach for Lawyers and author of "The Art of Practicing Law: A Practical Guide for Lawyers."