In This Greece Crisis Negotiation, Tough Conditions May Have Affected the Deal

Exhaustion, time pressures, and stress can take a toll in crisis negotiation

By Katie Shonkon / Crisis Negotiations

During a crisis negotiation, all that may seem to matter is reaching a deal as quickly as possible. The desire to head off a disaster may lead crisis negotiators to forego the usual comforts of life, such as sleep, in their single-minded pursuit of their goal.

Those appear to have been the conditions under which the government of Greece and its European creditors negotiated a definitive new bailout package for the financially troubled nation back in 2015. After Greek voters rejected the deal on the table in a referendum, Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and his team headed back to Brussels for a 17-hour marathon negotiating session to come to a new agreement.

The final deal gave Greece up to $98 billion but little else from its wish list. The crisis leadership, including Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, emerged from their all-night negotiating session looking “weary and red-eyed,” according to The Guardian.

Crisis negotiation skills can make or break a negotiator in heated conflicts. Learn these skills from the experts at Harvard Law School when you download our FREE Special Report, Crisis Communication: How to Avoid Being Held Hostage by Crisis Negotiations.

Crisis Negotiations and Dealmaking: What Negotiators Need to Know

Several features endemic to crisis negotiation may have made the dealmaking particularly challenging to those involved:

1. Exhaustion

As a crisis negotiator, you may feel you aren’t doing your job if you don’t work around the clock. But foregoing sleep is likely to exacerbate an already dire situation.

Why? Because sleep deprivation severely harms out decision-making abilities. Physical and mental exhaustion reduce our ability to process new information and to deal with distraction, in addition to hindering our short-term memory, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School professor Michael Chee told the Guardian. Sleep deprivation also leads us to make risky decisions and become insensitive to losses.

Chee says likens prolonged sleep deprivation to torture and notes that “the most insistent person who is standing at the end” of a round-the-clock negotiating session “probably prevails.”

2. Time pressure

Time pressures, such as a financial or environmental disaster that is worsening by the day, are also likely to take a toll on crisis negotiators. It’s understandable that negotiators will want to resolve a crisis as quickly as possible. But in their haste, they may actually exacerbate the situation.

Speed can be dangerous in negotiation, United Nations diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who has led crisis negotiations in Afghanistan and Syria, said during a 2002 interview while receiving the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School’s Great Negotiator Award. When negotiators are fixated on wrapping up talks as quickly as possible, they may focus only on the most vivid issues and overlook those that could be used to generate value-creating tradeoffs.

Deadline pressures can also cause negotiators to limit information sharing and overlook how they could benefit from one another’s proposals.

3. Stress

The stress inherent in the typical crisis negotiation tends to exacerbate conflict between parties, as each looks for reasons to deflect the other party for what has gone wrong. This type of blame game has been evident in the Greek financial crisis, with Greeks blaming the Eurozone’s austerity measure for its stagnant economy and European leaders accusing Greek government leaders of failing to steer a clear course out of the crisis.

Emotional stress also leads the average crisis negotiator to fall back on stereotypes, including culturally based snap judgments, Columbia University professor Michael Morris has found in his research. And stress leads negotiators to claim less value than they would when feeling more relaxed, Cornell University professor Kathleen O’Connor and her colleagues have found.

Crisis Negotiation Tips for Managing High-Pressure Bargaining Scenarios

As a crisis negotiator, how can you manage the exhaustion, time pressure, and stress that typically infects such high-pressure talks?

Here are several suggestions:

• Assess the threat level. Does a crisis negotiation truly need to be conducted day and night, or can it be lengthened to encourage rational decision making? Look for ways to alleviate the immediate crisis so that you can build in enough time to conduct comprehensive negotiations.

• Take frequent breaks and make time for sleep. If talks are so urgent that they need to be conducted around the clock (as in the event of an environmental disaster), include enough people on your negotiating team to allow everyone to take adequate breaks to refresh and recharge.

• Prepare, prepare, prepare. Don’t make the mistake of rushing into a crisis negotiation unprepared. Insist on giving all parties enough time to thoroughly research the relevant issues, options, and alternatives. Otherwise, you will find yourselves scrambling to catch up at the negotiating table—and could make impulsive decisions as a result.

• Encourage collaboration. To reduce stress, emphasize that all parties involved have an interest in collaborating on a solution. In crisis negotiations, it can be especially important to emphasize the importance of cooperation to reduce the odds that parties will blame one another and become overly competitive.

Have you experienced a crisis negotiation scenario? Share your story in the comments.

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Crisis negotiation skills can make or break a negotiator in heated conflicts. Learn these skills from the experts at Harvard Law School when you download our FREE Special Report, Crisis Communication: How to Avoid Being Held Hostage by Crisis Negotiations.