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Deadlock in negotiation – do you use it or fear it?

some people subscribe to the view that it is not possible to reach the optimum outcome in a negotiation without at least the threat of deadlock. if the other party knows that you are amenable towards reaching an agreement then they will expect you to be flexible and for all of the value transfer to come from your side of the table. conversely therefore, if they think that you are prepared to walk away then this will influence their behaviour in quite the opposite way.

this can quite an adversarial approach, but there are times in negotiation where such a methodology may well be appropriate. if the circumstances of the negotiation are cold; in other words price-focussed with little scope for creativity, where intransigence and inflexibility may be more likely to get you the result you need, then you may want to consider using the threat of deadlock.

next time you buy a car for example, try walking away if they are not showing the required flexibility in price. see what happens. however, only do this if there is another similar or identical car that you can buy without inconveniencing yourself unduly (and do it on a day when the showroom is quiet). if it is a rare car which you have been dreaming about since you were a child, then such short term tactics may not be as appropriate. if they call your bluff, then your power may be significantly diminished if you have to climb down.

to take this type of approach effectively, you must remember that he world looks very different from their perspective. you need to understand their world, their pressures, opportunities and circumstances. this will be achieved through:

  • research. where can you find out about them? their website, social media, colleagues, market knowledge, precedent (what they did in previous negotiations) e.t.c.
  • questions. make your questions relevant and to the point. you’re trying to find out, amongst other things, if they have any alternatives and options; but if you ask them this specifically they are only likely to answer that they do, even if they do not. so be careful with your questions, there are such things as inappropriate ones.
  • listening. there is no point asking questions if you don’t listen to the answer. sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised. listen to what they don’t say as much as what they do.

if you are going to threaten deadlock, the threat does not need to be explicit. the most powerful threats are subtle ones, but be under no illusions, it is still a threat. if you make a threat then plan for 2 factors:

  1. you have to be prepared to either carry it through or to back down.
  2. if you make a threat then there is a more than even chance that they will make a counter threat, even if it is an emotional response and not planned.

neither of these factors are necessarily a problem as long as you have planned for them. you should not be surprised if you find yourself in either (or both) situation.

this type of approach has risk associated with it, so you should only use it in your low risk negotiations, where the product or solution is available elsewhere, and you are not trying to establish high levels of relationship with the other party. if you are trying to get the best deal for broadband for example, letting them know that their competitors have more favourable terms, and you are prepared to sign up with these competitors could be very effective (as long as those competitors represent a viable option for you). adopting the same tactics with a key supplier, who offers value in other ways than simply price, is not recommended.

even if you are not prepared to engage in this type of approach, then it does not mean that it won’t be used on you, so you still need to be aware of it and prepared for it:

  • be prepared to challenge them with questions.
  • do not make counter-threats unless you have objectively assessed that this is the appropriate response (it rarely is).
  • calling their bluff may back them into a corner which their ego does not allow them to come out of. instead give them options that they can accept. ignore their threats and propose on your terms.

only you can assess whether or not threatening deadlock is appropriate for your negotiation, but if you do, then ensure that it is used in an objective, thought-through way, rather than in an emotional, off-the-cuff way.

preparation is key.

Dan Hughes

He has specialised in negotiation consulting since 2005, and set up his own business in 2012 bringing this expertise to businesses small and large in all parts of the world. This company - bridge][ability ltd - runs behavioural and strategic planning negotiation skills programs which transform capabilities and has a client list which includes Tesco, The FA, Fujitsu, Capita, Reiss, Take 2 Interactive (the company behind Grand Theft Auto), BBC Worldwide and Channel 4.

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