Deal-Making Techniques for When You Feel Powerless

In negotiation, certain deal-making techniques can help us feel more powerful and reach better negotiated outcomes even when we lack objective sources of strength at the bargaining table.

By on / BATNA

deal making techniques

In negotiation, we’re often advised that our most important source of power is our best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. If we feel powerless when making business deals, it’s often because we don’t have a strong alternative if the current deal falls apart or fails to meet our needs. Thus, the key to enhancing our power in negotiation is to try to improve our walk-away alternatives.

But what if you’ve done everything you can to bolster your BATNA and it’s still falling short?

In such cases, deal-making techniques may be available to help you improve your sense of power and your outcomes, the results of two 2018 studies show.

Acting the Part

When you lack power, there may be deal-making techniques you can engage in to make the other party think you’re powerful, such as displays of dominance, past negotiation research has shown. Dominance behaviors include taking up space with expansive postures, speaking loudly, taking the lead in the conversation, and expressing anger.

In their research, University of Southern California professor Scott S. Wiltermuth and his colleagues looked at whether the amount of objective power a negotiator has affects how useful his or her displays of dominance will be in a negotiation. In one of the experiments, pairs of undergraduates played the role of two coworkers, a senior vice president and a junior analyst, hammering out the details of a new virtual-reality project.

In some of the experiment’s conditions, those playing the senior vice president were told they had much more negotiating power than those playing the junior analyst, who were told that they were in a much weaker bargaining position relative to the senior VP. Some of the negotiators (both VPs and junior analysts) were encouraged to engage in dominance behaviors (such as speaking loudly, interrupting, and taking up a lot of space) during the negotiation, which they were told might improve their outcomes.


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The results showed that when the low-power negotiators engaged in dominance behaviors, they felt more powerful and claimed more value as a result. Thus, when you lack power, behaving in a dominant manner may help you with claiming value in negotiation.

By contrast, the high-power negotiators in the experiment didn’t feel more powerful or claim more value as a result of engaging in dominance behaviors. However, the high-power negotiators’ dominance behaviors helped them and their counterparts create new sources of value in the negotiation. The high-power negotiators’ dominant behavior highlighted their power and cued their less powerful counterparts to rely on collaborative moves, such as making tradeoffs across issues.

The study suggests that negotiators may be able to improve their outcomes by using a dominant negotiating style. However, the authors caution that dominance behaviors can backfire if your counterpart believes you’re just try to gain status through deal-making techniques.

Make-believe BATNAs

Simply imagining that you have more power than you actually do can also help when trying to negotiate a deal, INSEAD researcher Michael Schaerer and his colleagues found in seven experiments conducted on more than 2,500 people.

In one experiment, participants were instructed to make the first offer in a negotiation over a used CD with an online buyer (who was fictitious). Some sellers were told that a different buyer had offered them $8 for the CD—a strong BATNA. Others were told they had no other offer—a weak BATNA. Those in a third group also were told they had no other offer (a weak BATNA) and then were asked to imagine having a strong alternative offer. The results showed that those in this group made significantly more ambitious first offers than those who were simply told they had no alternative—$11.20 as compared to $8.65. In fact, those whose strong BATNAs were imaginary asked for about as much as those who actually had a strong BATNA.

Overall, the study’s results imply that thinking about the BATNA we’d like to have may inspire us to ask for more and get better results in our negotiations. It seems that in negotiation, positive beliefs—even if they’re not rooted in reality—can actually make us more ambitious and successful. Be aware, however, that when negotiators are very far apart on price, imagining a healthy BATNA can make you overly ambitious and bring about an impasse in cases where a satisfactory deal was possible.

 What other deal-making techniques have you found to be effective when you felt powerless?

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