Negotiation Impasse? How to Unlock the Deadlock

“Parties can become angry or entrenched in their positions. Perceptions become distorted, and judgments are biased. The parties stop communicating effectively and instead blame one another. One party has a conflict management style that is not compatible with the other. Perceptions are so different that the parties do not believe there is any possible compatibility between them, or they cannot find a middle ground where agreement is possible.”

from Lewicki R.J., Barry B., Saunders D.M. – Negotiation (New York: McGraw Hill, 2020) Ch. 17

This is the promised sequel to my recent post on negotiations. Let’s not beat around the bush. Sometimes negotiations (whether with your local homeowners association, your manager for a raise, or your in-laws for the kid’s sugar intake) simply hit a wall. There can be multiple reasons for that – which have to do with the issues at hand, the parties involved or the negotiation environment. The more intense the negotiations are and the more they take a toll on the participants’ lives, the more likely to stall or breakdown. When the issues are too complex, they are more difficult to solve. Backing someone into a corner or causing them to lose face is also a sure way to sabotage your negotiation.

What can you do?

It’s always helpful to take a breath, step back for second, and try to understand where things went wrong. What’s derailing your negotiation? What are the root causes? Is there a significant difference in values, lifestyles, beliefs and ideologies of the two negotiating parties? A personal incompatibility, perhaps? Are the stakes too high? Is someone very domineering, intent on “winning” at all costs, unwilling to budge but more than willing to put others down? Is there a history of frustration, revenge and anger? And do the parties understand clearly enough and agree upon what it is they are negotiating? Or are they basically talking past each other?

Possible solutions to impasses

The best way to solve an impasse is by preventing it. Set an agenda and establish clear guidelines and rules beforehand. (Before things get out of hand, that is ;-)).

But once it’s happened, there are three key directions to follow:

1. Empathy and better communication
  • Listen carefully, actively, empathically.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to imagine what things look and feel like from their perspective.
  • Reverse the roles.
2. Reducing tension and de-escalating

This is easier said than done. But your toolbox should probably include:

  • stopping the meeting, separating the parties for a while, taking a break
  • humor, catharsis
  • gradual and mutual concessions
  • changing the membership of the negotiating teams.
3. Managing deadlines, goals and expectations
  • If the issue is too complex, break it down into smaller parts and negotiate those separately, in concrete, depersonalized terms.
  • Establish common goals, common grounds and common expectations (even a common enemy works!); re-frame the way parties view each other.
  • Sometimes, a sweeter offer might work much better than a threat. Give the other party a proposal they can accept (or at least can’t refuse) and legitimize it using objective criteria.

I can’t emphasize this enough: cultural issues (even if we’re only talking about different organizational or family cultures) are crucial in a negotiation! Neglecting the other person’s point of view or glossing over their problem is a surefire way to end up in an impasse. (So is failing to adjust your perceptions and insisting on negotiating positions rather than interests.)

What has been your experience with negotiations so far? Do you negotiate on a regular basis? The book I mentioned in the beginning is a great help. So is, of course, Fischer and Ury’s famous ‘Getting to Yes‘. For intercultural insights and optimized word choices, or if you need a personal interpreter for your business negotiations, you can always contact YourTranscreator. Happy to hear from you!

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