How to Avoid the Domino Effect in International Negotiations

In International Negotiation: Fear of the Domino Effect

By on / International Negotiation

“Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” Unfortunately, that’s the attitude with which many people approach negotiation. Convinced that their counterparts will take advantage of any concessions and compromise they make, they refuse to make any at all.

As a result, negotiations end up stalemated, and inefficient practices continue.

This expectation of a “domino effect” may be especially likely in international negotiations, where cultural differences and territorial concerns perpetuate an “us versus them” approach. Take the international debate over Japan’s long tradition of hunting whales, a practice that many other nations condemn as barbaric and have tried to halt.


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

In 1986, the United States threatened that it would limit Japanese ships’ access to U.S. fish stocks if Japan continued to allow whaling. Japan did agree to halt whaling, but the U.S. government followed through on its threat nonetheless. Japan resumed whaling the following year under its controversial scientific program.

This March, the International Court of Justice outlawed Japan’s annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters. But in September, Japan announced it would continue whaling under a controversial research program. The program is “far from scientific,” having generated only two peer-reviewed scholarly articles since 2005 despite the slaughter of about 3,600 whales during this time, writes University of Oxford environmental research Peter Wynn Kirby in the New York Times.

In addition, Kirby notes, consumer demand for whale meat in Japan has plummeted in recent years, leaving thousands of tons of whale meat in cold storage.

According to Kirby, these inefficiencies are primarily rooted in the concern within the Japanese government that concessions on whaling would lead to further concessions on some of its other fishing activities. In 2008, the Japanese business magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai quoted a government official as saying “If we give an inch on the whaling issue, we will also have to back down on tuna.” The Japanese government has fought against restrictions on the fishing of endangered tuna and other fish species.

In our own business negotiations, how can we convince a counterpart that concessions we view to be essential—whether on financial, moral, or other grounds—is not the first in a line of toppling dominoes?

First, work to build trust.

  • If your counterpart is new to you, or if past negotiations haven’t gone their way, you can’t expect them to trust your motives. Give the other side space to air their concerns and past grievances, and apologize and make amends for any actions of yours that created mistrust.

Second, ask questions and share information.

  • Devote plenty of time to a back-and-forth dialogue about the issues at stake. By asking the other party lots of questions about their positions, you can reveal their underlying interests. In addition, share information about your own interests. This type of open exchange should allow you to uncover potential tradeoffs.

Third, demonstrate principles of good-faith bargaining.

  • Rather than demanding a unilateral concession, look for ways to try to make the other party whole. Kirby, for example, urges governments that negotiate with Japan on fishing to help the nation to secure access to sustainable fisheries. It’s unrealistic to expect any negotiator to make a big concession without the promise of a corresponding benefit or evidence that you are making concessions in return.

Related Article: Panda Diplomacy and Business Negotiations – Applying Soft Power


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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