Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket (Part 1 of 2)


Part 1: The Limits of Traditional Negotiating Techniques

Have you ever read a book about negotiating? Maybe you’ve read a lot of them. Did you try the techniques that the authors espoused? How well did they work for you?

When you think about it, if someone had discovered a technique to control the free will of the person on the other side of the negotiating table, how likely do you think it is that they would write that secret down in a book and sell it for $24.95?

All the traditional negotiating techniques that we have read about and used often seem more like a dance than a science. Eventually they are going to get you to a point somewhere within a narrow range of perceived possible outcomes. Using one technique or another may get you a little more or a little less, but none of them are going to change the landscape.

Before dusting off that book on negotiating you read a while back, let me give you a “Readers Digest” version of the nine most common negotiating gambits:

  1. Extreme Initial Position. This technique tries to anchor the preliminary discussions so that bargaining begins from an extreme position instead of a rational offer. The best counter to this approach is not to ignore the offer but to rationally address the reasons the offer is not worthy of serious discussion and to ask detailed and probing questions to weaken the factual basis behind the extreme opening position.
  1. Take it or leave it. This strategy involves making a firm and unyielding offer. This technique rarely works unless one party has a great negotiating leverage (in which case it’s more of a strategy on how not to negotiate than how to negotiate). It also suffers from denying your opponent participation in the bargaining process, which is often a key emotional need to reach agreement. 
  1. Limited Authority. Frequently used, this maneuver involves representing that you have no authority to go any further and must seek approval from others. The goal is to bind your opponent without binding yourself. With a skilled opponent, this approach usually just protracts negotiations since it’s easy for two to play the same game and to defer further discussions until the parties can check with their clients, superiors, investors, lenders or whomever else they claim to report to. 
  1. Nibble, Nibble. This is a variation of the Limited Authority technique. After apparently agreeing to terms, the negotiator gets back to their opponent with the distressing news that they need to make several minor changes to the agreement in order to get their client on board. This technique relies on the opponent being emotionally invested in the “almost final” agreement and not wanting to open things up. It’s easily countered by demanding reciprocity on the “small changes”. 
  1. Decreasing Offers. This move starts with a fairly realistic offer that is conditioned upon resolving negotiations by a set time. If full agreement is not reached by the deadline, the offer is withdrawn or reduced. This is a high-risk strategy since your opponent may in fact not be able to meet the deadline and then your bluff will be known. It’s also a difficult strategy to defend if your opponent asks you to detail the harm suffered if the deadline is missed. 
  1. Table pounding. This is an isolated technique and not an overall strategy. The risk is that your opponent reciprocates and the stakes of the negotiation have been needlessly escalated. It’s an effective technique if used very sparingly, and in a controlled manner. Just remember that when Nikita Khrushchev pounded a shoe on the podium of the United Nations in 1960, he was still wearing his two shoes.
  1. Brer Rabbit. To jog your memory, Br’er rabbit was the character in the children’s fable that when caught by the Fox offered to suffer any terrible fate as long as he wasn’t thrown in the briar patch. Of course, the Fox, having the upper hand in these negotiations, did exactly that; whereupon Br’er Rabbit made his escape. For Disney’s take on this technique see: The technique relies upon your opponent having the upper hand and being susceptible to reverse psychology. So, hypothetically, if Option 3 is your real objective, you offer to accept Option 1 or Option 2 as long as you don’t have to risk Option 3. A great technique, but rarely do the stars align in a negotiation so you can use it.
  1. Good cop bad cop. A technique learned by everyone who ever watched a police drama. Because it is so widely known and easy to identify, the method should have limited effectiveness, but it’s surprising how hardwired the brain is to please the “good cop” and avoid the “bad cop”. It is still the standard interrogation technique of detectives, but works best when you can detain the party in a poorly lit room for hours on end – not often the case in business negotiations.
  1. Village Idiot. Sometimes the smart thing to do is to play dumb. Peter Falk gave a lesson on this technique in every episode of the television series Columbo. It’s less of a negotiating technique than a discovery technique, but it should be in everybody’s toolkit. Don’t assume you understand what makes your opponent tick. If you play inept, and allow your opponent to explain his world and how it works, you will be better equipped to reach your negotiating goals. Of course, a sophisticated opponent will recognize this technique and resist the human tendency to want to help, and worse may feed you misrepresentations that backup their negotiating position. Obviously only reliable in a television script.

All of these traditional negotiating techniques suffer from a fundamental flaw: The techniques assume that the negotiator is limited to dealing with a given set of circumstances. 

But what if you could change the circumstances surrounding your negotiation? In other words, why deal with the cards you are dealt when you can change the cards you hold?

We will examine the new science of negotiating and how to change the cards that you hold in Part 2 of this blog.

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