Business Negotiations and the Element of Surprise

6 tips for successfully managing surprise in a negotiation

May 22, 2019 | Denise Gifford

surprisesLike it or not, we are all negotiating, all the time—and at some level, all negotiations involve an assessment of the balance of power: how much do I want what the other party has to offer, and how much do they want what I have?

Negotiation tactics are positions taken to shift the balance of perceived power in a negotiation. These tactics, whether deployed consciously or not, are a part of all business relationships. Sometimes negotiators consciously use tactics to get a reaction, force a concession, or cement a position. But more often in strategic negotiations, tactics are used subconsciously as part of the natural process of moving the discussions along.

One common negotiating tactic is the element of surprise. Surprises can change the focus of the negotiation, get the other party to reconsider a position, or result in a concession. One party may spring a surprise on the other party (new information, organizational change, etc.), and this can negatively affect the climate of the negotiation. Surprises may create uncertainty for both parties about where each of them stands.

So how should you handle surprises in negotiations? When first hearing about a change, our tendency is to react immediately by worrying about how this affects our position and ability to get what we want. That is, we focus on ourselves.

Instead, when hit with a surprise by the other party, focus on learning the details and reasons for the change by following these 6 steps:

  1. Ask clarifying questions to understand exactly what the change is.
  2. Determine, from the other party’s perspective, how they think the change affects both of you.
  3. Clarify any “new demands” embedded in the surprise.
  4. Review past agreements to see if they need to be re-opened and/or to reconfirm agreements to strengthen resolve to complete the deal.
  5. Clarify the new issues now to be negotiated.
  6. Caucus or ask for a recess to evaluate the impact of the change on your position.

If you are the one causing a surprise, be aware of the uncertainty it creates for the other party. No one likes surprises that may seem to be working against them. Often, after a surprise, the other party will become somewhat less trusting, and negotiators who are perceived as frequently changing the game can come across as manipulative and lose credibility over the long-term. You should consider communicating changes before the actual face-to-face negotiation to ensure that the other party has time to work the new information into their assessment of the situation.

If you can’t communicate the change beforehand, think carefully about how to position the surprise. The other party will be more receptive if you explain rationally the reasons for the change and provide background. It also helps to communicate that the surprise is not meant to change the whole deal and throw everything wide open to renegotiation. Describe the change specifically and how you think it impacts points already agreed-upon.

Surprises don’t have to derail a negotiation; they can be handled in a constructive way to improve the quality of the overall agreement and to reinforce the strategic negotiating process.

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is co-founder of InfoWorks® International, which has provided consulting and training to companies worldwide in project management and related skills. Prior to leading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management, and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.