Adapted from “Leading Horses to Water,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
The hardest step in negotiation is often the first. Costly lawsuits can drag on if everyone is afraid to be the first to blink. Prospective buyers and sellers can waste endless hours dancing around a possible deal. And in collective bargaining, labor and management teams sometimes paint themselves into corners by refusing to negotiate “matters of principle.”
Classic negotiation literature has treated getting to the table as a decision-making problem. In their book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton recommend calculating how other parties weigh the pros and cons of negotiating. Someone might refuse to talk because he feels he has nothing to gain. He may have to be enticed with a sweeter bundle of carrots or persuaded that his non-agreement alternatives aren’t as good as he thought.
A study by Jean Poitras, Robert E. Bowen, and Sean Byrne explores the connection between poor relationships and negotiator pessimism. The study finds that people locked in conflict—those who may need negotiation the most—are easily trapped by negative attitudes that deepen perceived differences. The researchers suggest two pre-negotiation steps to break the impasse: mitigate poor relationships through cautious acts of trust building and ask a credible third party to perform a cost-benefit analysis of potential settlements. A trusted go-between may help everyone save face and craft an agenda that all deem acceptable.
When outside facilitators or brokers aren’t available or appropriate, stakeholders can get to the table by underplaying the significance of the negotiation. Talks can be termed “exploratory” or “informational”; contentious issues can temporarily or permanently be taken off the table. When emotions run high, getting new faces involved may break the deadlock. Parties also can be assured an easy, graceful exit if progress isn’t made. In short, getting to the bargaining table may itself require deft negotiation.