Negotiating Should Not Be About Bargaining Over Position

We have all seen it before; people locked into intractable positions.  Stuck, frustrated and negotiating for a deal or decision they think can only be won by digging in and refusing to budge.  But it’s this very unwillingness to move that is more often than not costing them a favorable outcome.
It happens in business, it happens in politics, it happens at the markets, it happens way too often in relationships, it happens everywhere: people missing out because they have confused negotiating with winning.  It often looks something like this:
Customer:  How much for this old cup?
Shopkeeper: That is a beautiful antique isn’t it Sir?  I guess $75 is a fair price.
Customer: Oh come on, it’s chipped here.  I’ll give you $15.
Shopkeeper: Oh no, that’s impossible.  $60 cash, I’ll wrap it and you can take it now.
Customer: $25.
Shopkeeper:  You must be joking surely.
Customer: $37.50 and that’s my final offer.
Shopkeeper: You notice the pattern on that?  It’s very rare, next year that cup will be worth twice that amount.
And so it goes; resembling more a game of tennis – where each player keeps looking for the decisive match-point – rather than a serious attempt at negotiating.
Negotiating using this particular style separates both sides and each feels more and more a need to defend rather than seek common agreement.  Ego has now entangled itself in the process and it has become almost impossible to distinguish between reaching an agreement and defeating an opponent.
We can find examples of this quite frequently in political negotiations, often with dangerous consequences.  In 1961, both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that steps had to be taken towards a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. Negotiations were proceeding well until the issue of how many independent inspections would need to be carried out was raised. The United States insisted on ten, while the Soviet Union was prepared to accept three.  Revealingly, experts advised both sides that the number of inspections was actually not important, only that they be completely independent. The talks quickly broke down, both sides refusing to give in on the number of inspections; a number that was in reality completely irrelevant.  Ego had entered the negotiation process and both sides quickly lost.
How serious was this breakdown? If it had succeeded, the comprehensive testing ban would have reduced and helped control the nuclear arsenal controlled by both sides.  Furthermore, it would have prevented the Cuba missile crisis in 1962, a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Negotiating is not about winning? It’s about finding common agreement.

In positional negotiation, the goal becomes victory rather than agreement. Concessions are demanded of the other side rather than concessions being expected of both sides. The negotiation style could easily lead to making threats rather than making offers.
An efficient way to move away from positional bargaining was created by the Harvard Negotiation Project and called Principled Negotiation. The method boiled down to four points.
  • People: Always separate the people you are negotiating with from the problem you are negotiating about.
  • Interests: Abandon always focusing on positions, focus on interests instead.
  • Options: Look for options that provide gains for everyone.
  • Criteria: Maintain a clear standard both sides can be comfortable with.
Using this standard, participants become problem-solvers rather than adversaries. Both sides explore interests rather than make threats. Both sides aim to achieve a result based on standards that are independent of ego and personality, or cultural differences.
This is the new face of negotiation.
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