Managing Difficult Conversations: Achieving Objectives with Backmapping Negotiation Strategies

Use backward mapping to identify bargaining positions when digging into your negotiation strategies toolbox

By PON Staffon / Dealing with Difficult People

The problem: Your negotiation strategies seem to be over before they’ve begun. Your targeted counterpart is refusing to sit down with you or simply ignoring your requests. How can you get her to see that she would benefit from negotiating with you?

This may be the wrong question to ask, write David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius in their book 3-D Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). Instead, start by asking yourself, Am I dealing with the right person? 

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Backmapping Negotiation Strategies

The tool: According to Lax and Sebenius, backward mapping is the process of envisioning your preferred outcome and then thinking in reverse about how to achieve it. By mapping backward, you can choose your negotiating partners wisely and approach them in the right order.

Take the case of a small business that is trying to enter a new market. The owner’s first instinct might be to approach venture capitalists (VCs) about possible financing. But on further reflection, he realizes he’d be wiser to approach manufacturers about becoming potential partners in the arrangement. By signing on first with a respected manufacturer, he’s more likely to impress VCs with his business plan and negotiate an agreement.

Similarly, suppose you’re a midlevel manager who comes up with an idea that you think will save your firm money. Rather than dropping by the CEO’s office, you might approach one of his trusted advisers in the finance department, sell her on the idea, and then pitch it to the CEO together.

Operating instructions:

Backward mapping involves the following four steps, according to Lax and Sebenius:

1. Make a map of all the parties who might potentially get involved in your negotiation and think about their interests.

2. Estimate how difficult, costly, and valuable it might be to get each party on board.

3. Identify the patterns of influence and deference among these parties—who listens to whom, who owes something to whom, and so on.

4. After identifying your ultimate target, consider what agreements should be in place to secure her cooperation.

Figure out whom must you negotiate before reaching your target negotiator, and how you can win that person over. Though backward mapping may sound complicated at first, it can actually simplify negotiations by allowing you to clear a straight path toward the person who ultimately needs to sign off on your deal. Once you get used to backward mapping, you are likely to find that it saves you time and effort—and helps you avoid running into a wall. Safety warning: “Using” one person to get to another person may strike some as manipulative. But if you ensure that each party you approach gets something out of your ultimate deal, you can defuse such concerns.

In addition, meeting openly with “team” members—those with whom you’re trying to build a deal—can enhance group ownership of your ultimate agreement, according to Lax and Sebenius.

Related Dealing with Difficult People Article: Dealing with Difficult People, In and Outside of Congress – Multiparty negotiations and team-based bargaining present challenging scenarios for even veteran negotiators but, like individual negotiations or bargaining on a smaller scale, the same opportunities for value creation, claiming, and relationship building exist in large, multiparty and team-based negotiations. In this article, we examine the United States Congress and its difficult bargainers and how the congressional teams decide on bargaining platforms and then execute a negotiation strategy based upon predetermined objectives and well-thought through best alternatives to a negotiated agreement with the other side.

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

What are your favorite negotiation strategies? Leave a comment.

Adapted from “Reach Your Target with Backward Mapping,” first published in the March 2010 issue of Negotiation.

Originally published in 2014.