Offer Your Counterpart a Graceful Retreat

By — on / Business Negotiations

Sometimes negotiators back themselves into a corner by taking a tough stance that brings talks to an impasse. In such cases, they are likely to view retreat as a sign of weakness – a surefire way of losing face. To move talks forward, you’ll need to help the other party make a graceful retreat, write Deborah M. Kolb and Judith Williams in their book Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

As an example, the authors tell the story of Lois, a university researcher  whose team of fellow graduate students was having trouble getting study participants to return to campus for follow-up interviews. Lois approached the research director about the problem, and the woman suggested that the researchers conduct follow-up interviews through home visits.

The plan was successful at bringing participans back into the fold, but the grad students found they were spending too much on travel expenses. When Lois brought up the possibility of reimbursement, the director suddenly “tensed up.” She told Lois she couldn’t help out, as home visits weren’t included in the original study budget. Lois persisted, appealing to the director’s sense of fairness, but she failed to make headway.

Lois became aware that she was backing the director into a corner. Home visits had been the director’s idea, and she would lose face by admitting to a graduate student that she’d made a mistake in not accounting for travel expenses.

Realizing the director needed an out, Lois asked whether she’d be willing to take up the matter with the university’s grants administrator. That way, Lois thought, the director could discuss the issue with a peer without having to admit that her original suggestion was ill conceived. By the end of the month, the researchers had been reimbursed for their travel expenses, though Lois never learned where the funding had come from.

When a negotiator recognizes she’s made a mistake, she’ll likely be tempted to dig in her heels to avoid an embarrassing surrender. In such circumstances, look for possible solutions that will help her save face, especially with key constituencies.

Adapted from “How to Help Your Counterpart Save Face,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, July 2010.

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