If you’ve ever played chess, you know that sometimes you and your partner reach a “stalemate.” A stalemate is a position in which no action can be taken. You’ve likely experienced negotiating situations in life where there has been a stalemate, such as when buying a car, a house, or even during disagreements with friends or family.
In business, you might run into a stalemate when negotiating with a client about a contract or the scope of a project. To keep the negotiation moving forward, strategies include revisiting negotiating criteria, restating anything that’s been agreed upon, clarifying the issues, brainstorming, and emotional appeals. Let’s take a deeper look at these time-tested strategies.
Revisit the negotiating criteria
When a negotiation seems stuck, it’s a good idea to revisit the negotiating criteria. Those are the objective pieces of information that inform the negotiation, and help you determine what is fair. For example, if you are negotiating for a car, what is the price at other dealerships? If you are negotiating a freelance contract, what are others being paid for similar work? Focusing on objective rather than emotional considerations can help you get the negotiation back on track.
Restate anything that’s been agreed upon
If you’ve already reached agreement at points throughout the negotiation, it’s time to revisit those points of harmony. By restating, or paraphrasing, those agreements, you’ll help the negotiation regain momentum. Not only will this process affirm the progress that’s been made, but it will highlight the places where more work still needs to be done.
Clarify the issues
Clarifying the issues and defining where there are hurdles will help you and your negotiating partner gain shared insight. What exactly is causing the negotiation to break down? Working together, develop a list of the outstanding issues and make sure you have a common understanding of them.
Good old-fashioned brainstorming is another strategy for a negotiation that’s gone awry. Asking “what are all the possible ways this issue might be solved?” can help you and your negotiating partner see each other’s point of view, and, at least temporarily, be on the same side of the table.
What about using an emotional appeal to get what you want? A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrated the effect of emotion during negotiations. The study participants played an ultimatum bargaining game in which they decided how many chips to give to others. When participants were from the same group, an “ingroup” member who showed disappointment in the negotiation evoked guilt, which led to higher offers. But relying upon disappointment, anger, sympathy or other emotions can stress a business relationship, so caution is warranted.
Some business stalemates are particularly difficult, and the above strategies might not be enough. The negotiation remains at a standstill. As in chess, there appears to be no way forward; the king is so pinned in that it cannot be moved without getting taken. In that instance, it seems the player must give up. That is also the case in some negotiations. But is there anything that can be done, as a final attempt, before closing the negotiation without an agreement?
When all else fails, there are two additional ways to try to keep the negotiation going. Both should be used only if strategic approaches have not worked, and if you are confident you won’t damage the business relationship by taking these measures.
This usually translates to splitting the difference. There is no rational reason for this approach, but it is emotionally appealing to some negotiators. For instance, if a seller wants $100 for something, and the buyer wants to pay $50, they have chosen their dollar amount because they believe the item to be of that value. A decision to agree at $75 suggests both parties have allowed themselves to change what they think the item is worth.
This involves trading one already agreed-upon issue for a new one, and is most common in multiple-issue negotiations. Oftentimes, when several issues of a complex negotiation have been discussed and resolved, the negotiators unconsciously begin “keeping score.” When the remaining issues surface, they become harder to negotiate without viewing them in the context of the other negotiated agreements. It may not make sense to reach agreement around a new issue in exchange for undoing agreement around an old issue, but it may be the only way to make the whole package “feel right.”
Sometimes a stalemate marks the end of a negotiation; both parties leave the negotiation without an agreement. They might ask themselves “was there any way I might have saved it?” In some instances it’s possible that there was no way the negotiation could have been saved, but many walk away from negotiations far too soon. There’s a lot that can be explored and tried, even if, at first, the negotiation seems hopelessly stuck.