Is Fear Sabotaging Your Ability to Negotiate? Part II: How Others Treat You

Welcome to part 2 of this 3-part article, Is Fear Sabotaging Your Ability to Negotiate? Inpart 1, I discussed fears related to how others will see you and offered research-based tips and tools for more effective collaboration at work. Today, I will discuss two fears related to how people will treat you: The fear of being taken advantage of and the fear of being demeaned. These fears can prevent you from asking for the resources necessary to perform your best or prompt you to preemptively give up value and end a negotiation at the first sign of assertiveness from the other side.

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Do you wonder how to get what you want when others seem to take your effort for granted and use your trust and kindness against you?

Do you fear how others will treat you in a negotiation, dispute or difficult situation?

Is Your Fear Well-founded?

If you think of yourself as a nice person, by which I mean someone who strives to treat others with kindness and respect, you probably expect others to reciprocate by treating you with kindness, fairness, and dignity in return. You may dread the prospect of entering into a situation replete with opportunities to be demeaned or taken advantage of. This may seem reasonable because negotiations and disputes can be fraught with bad behavior. However, while some negotiations are plagued with opportunities to demean and take advantage of others, many of the negotiations that you fear may present opportunities for creativity, collaboration and creating joint value.  

In this post, I will discuss research-based strategies that will help you enter negotiations confidently and reduce the chances of the negative interpersonal dynamics you fear.

1. Combating the Fear of being taken advantage of

If you are optimistic, trusting or unfamiliar with a particular situation, you may fear that others will take advantage of you or try to manipulate you. Your fears are not irrational. Research has found that people often mislead others whom they deem to be less competent or more naive (see work by Laura Kray and colleagues). However, there are two key ways to constrain this potential opportunism. The first method is to build trust and high-quality connections with your colleagues and boss. Trustworthy people refrain from taking advantage of others even when the opportunity presents itself. And high-quality connections, which are researched extensively by scholars at the Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan, promote mutual empathy. Mutual empathy, in turn, not only causes people to refrain from opportunism but motivates them to help others in ways that alleviate their pain. But how do you build trust and connection with others?

Negotiation Tool Kit 1

Perspective taking, inquiry, and listening are key components of building trust initially and of maintaining trust in an ongoing relationship. Perspective taking is the first step to asking better questions and actively listening to and reflecting your understanding of their perspective. By perspective taking, I don’t mean just imagining another person’s point of view but imagining how that person feels or will feel in a certain situation from his or her vantage point. People are more likely to trust and connect with those who make sincere attempts to understand how they see the world and invest time in listening to them. In addition, thinking about how another person feels strengthens our own concern for that person’s well-being and the value we place on positive outcomes for them.

Is Perspective Taking Analysis in Your Tool Kit?

To Read

Awakening Compassion by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton and The Empathy Effect by Helen Weiss. (If you teach, also see my summary of Four Research-based Methods for Teaching Trust, exercises in Table 1) for workshop activities.

Negotiation Tool Kit 2

The second method is to plan to reduce the likelihood that you will be taken advantage of. Planning is helpful for all negotiations (Getting Past No by William Ury). It complements the building of trust and connection and is critical when dealing with strangers or those you do not know well. It is also critical for dealing with those you know well to ensure you are not overvaluing their outcomes, being overly generous or over-empathizing. In addition to setting high aspirations and understanding your alternatives, you will need to do your homework and gather information that allows you to notice and prevent deception. Even when people do not lie to you outright, they may provide only partial information intended to mislead you into jumping into a false assumption. 


Look out for vague and incomplete answers and plan for them by having a set of follow up question ready. For example, vague answers from a seller like “I have never had any trouble with that” or “I don’t know” can be used to hide information. Such answers may mean that someone else other than the seller has had trouble with the item or the information is readily available but the seller has chosen not to look at that information. I experienced vague answers during my last house hunting expedition. I was looking at a Victorian house and noticed some water spots in the basement. When asked if there were problems with the foundation, the owners said “we have not had any problems” other than small seepage in one area. Yet when I drove by unannounced, they had placed a large garbage can in the back yard to collect water from the gutters and prevent it from entering the basement. The owners were honest about not having much trouble but failed to elaborate on why they did not currently have much of a problem or mention that the previous owner had had a water problem. After purchasing another house, I found that the foundation of the Victorian home had been significantly eroded by water damage and had to be replaced.

As you negotiate, don’t forget to take breaks to integrate the new information you gather into your plan.

In the comments below, please share a story about a time when planning has allowed you to catch someone in a lie or attempt to hide information and achieve a better outcome as a result.

2. Combating the fear of being demeaned.

When you encounter some who behaves in a demeaning manner, it is difficult to know if you are dealing (1) with someone who is arrogant, condescending and entitled, (2) with someone with low emotional intelligence who does not understand the impact their behavior has on others or (3) with someone who is feeling threatened and lashing out. Each situation calls for a different type of social intelligence and planning. 

When others are arrogant and condescending, you may choose to avoid them—a choice which is common according to Casciaro, & Lobo in their article Loveable Fools and Competent Jerks. However, you may be able to structure the negotiation situation in a way the encourages your counterpart to behave in a civil manner. You may label their behavior and reframe the negotiation process or point out the costs of not negotiating and coming to an agreement or you may change the negotiation situation to include superiors or others in front of whom your counterpart will not want to behave rudely.

When dealing with someone with low emotional intelligence, you have the option of overlooking their gruff behavior or making the impact of their behavior explicit and developing process ground rules for interacting.

In contrast, when dealing with someone who is feeling threatened, engaging in perspective taking and inquiry to understanding their point of view and taking action to influence their emotions and signal your trustworthiness are key. I call this process Threat Regulation.

How have you dealt with a boss, colleague or team member who has treated you in a disrespectful or demeaning manner?

In the comments below, please share your successful and unsuccessful attempts to deal with this type of behavior at work and negotiate for what you want.

(Learn more about threat regulation and emotion management in my next post, Is Fear Sabotaging Your Ability to Negotiate? Part III: Negative Emotions. Hit ‘Subscribe” to be notified about Part III.)

About the Author

Dr. Michele Williams (University of Michigan, Ph.D.) is assistant professor and the John L. Miclot Fellow in Entrepreneurship at the Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa. She is also a scholar with Cornell University’s Institute for Health Futures and with the Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell’s Johnson College of Business.

Michele has taught negotiations to executives, startups, MBAs, and undergraduates at leading schools of management for over 10 years. She is co-author of the Four Capabilities Leadership Assessment—an online 360° assessment used by organizations to enhance the leadership potential of managers. She speaks internationally on topics related to her research on trust, sustaining high-performing work relationships and women in business and entrepreneurship. 

Follow Michele on Twitter @MicheleWilliamz.

©2019 Michele Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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