Compassion in the Face of Hostility

Compassion in the Face of Hostility

By Michèle Huff, J.D. © 2015

How do we handle situations where our negotiating partner is suspicious, bad tempered, or openly hostile? Destructive behavior can overwhelm us and potentially derail negotiations. Transformative negotiation employs skillful means to react (or choose not to react) to that behavior, and to develop compassion, both for yourself and for your negotiating partner.

The Dalai Lama has said that true compassion “is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.” Here are five ways to cultivate compassion in the face of negative emotions.

    1. Cultivating compassion takes reason. The person displaying anger or hatred is not the “enemy”; their conduct likely wasn’t triggered by the deal points under discussion, but by a judgment, bias, miscommunication, or fear of the unknown. Your partner is suffering. The real adversary is attachment: the powerful feelings that have taken over. You can help by bringing awareness to the attachment, not personalizing or internalizing the outburst, and then modeling empathy to diffuse the energy.
    2. Cultivating compassion takes strength. While many view compassion as “soft,” it is not a sign of weakness. It takes courage to be compassionate, especially in the face of hostility. Displays of anger, on the other hand, are signs of weakness, of deep instability, insecurity, or in some cases of extremism. Protect yourself, but don’t attempt to “fix” your partner; instead find ways to ease their suffering and bring the dialogue back to the negotiation.
    3. Cultivating compassion takes present moment focus. We have seen the dangers of allowing hatred of a people, or anger over past harms to block negotiations. The U.S. and Iran are still, after 50 years, unable to put aside mutual suspicion and anger over historical mistreatment to engage in direct, face-to-face negotiations. As a transformative negotiator, your job is to let go of these attachments and re-connect with your true nature: love, empathy, and compassion. Start by creating a new landscape where non-violence is the norm, the way Senator George J. Mitchell did with the Northern Ireland peace process. Then work slowly to extend a degree of trust to one another, while strictly measuring conformance of words and deeds.
    4. Cultivating compassion takes connection. Toxic negotiations are disconnected. If you view your negotiating partner as the “other,” if you react with hatred or violence, you blind yourself to finding common ground. The goal is not to separate and divide, but to unite and connect, to humanize rather than demonize. This is a difficult but rewarding practice. Stay connected to your partner, unless you are physically or emotionally in danger in which case, walk away.
    5. Cultivating compassion takes patience. Our natural reaction to hostility is to protect ourselves: close down, lash out, or blame the other. If instead we acknowledge the suffering and react to the behavior with empathy, we can train ourselves to breathe and pause before responding in a negative way. In this way we stay open-hearted, eliminate the cycle of anger or hatred, ignorance and fear, and transform our negotiations.

One can only hope such a transformation can take place worldwide.


Michèle Huff is an attorney who has negotiated on behalf of Fortune 500 companies, including Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, and Canal+ and start-up companies, including Kalepa Networks and Cinnafilm. She has also negotiated on behalf of hundreds of individual clients and manages the Archer Law Group, a firm specializing in protecting and licensing creative properties.

Since 2008, she has been the University of New Mexico’s lawyer for research, technology and intellectual property. She negotiates agreements with industry, academic institutions, and governmental agencies on a regular basis. Michèle has taught intellectual property and licensing at the University of New Mexico’s School of Law, and has led negotiation workshops for local community foundations, technology venture associations, and business incubators. In May, she co-presented a session on Transformative Negotiation at NBIA’s 28th International Conference on Business Incubation in New Orleans. She was named one of Albuquerque Business First’s 2014 Women of Influence. Her website is:

HCI, in partnership with Unhooked Books, is honored to introduce Michèle Huff, J.D., a new addition to our family of authors who lead the way in transforming conflict.

“I believe that my success as a negotiator has little to do with my lawyerly training or my use of logic and reason. Rather, I succeed in negotiations because I practice being mindful and in the moment, no matter how hard or painful that might be. I call this approach ‘transformative negotiation’, because it moves parties past the mechanics of a transaction, beyond the two-dimensional win-win paradigm, and elevates the experience to a multidimensional interaction." [Excerpt from The Transformative Negotiator: Changing the Way We Come to Agreement from the Inside Out].