Dear Negotiation Coach: Responding (Or Not) to an Ultimatum

By on / Dispute Resolution

QUESTION

A counterpart recently made a “take it or leave it” offer during our negotiation. I wasn’t ready to accept the offer, but I didn’t want to walk away, either. Any advice on how to respond?

ANSWER

In my recent book, Negotiating the Impossible, I look at the many ways in which negotiators can break deadlocks and resolve conflicts, even when they don’t have “money or muscle.” One issue I address is how to handle hardball tactics, including ultimatums.

Ultimatums can come in many forms: “Take it or leave it!”; “We will never . . .”; “You must . . . .” These absolute statements seem to leave no room for negotiation. My response to any ultimatum—regardless of the type of negotiation or how the ultimatum was delivered—is usually quite simple: I completely ignore it. I don’t ask the person to repeat what he said or clarify what he meant. Instead, I pretend he never said it and move on to other issues.

Why? Many ultimatums are not true deal breakers. If you ignore an ultimatum, it will be easier for your counterpart to back down later because you have not engaged with or legitimized the ultimatum. A week, a month, or years from now, the other side may realize that what she said she could never do, she must do to get the deal done or should do in her own best interest. When that day comes, the last thing I need is for her to remember her ultimatum (or to remember my having heard the ultimatum)—because if she does, she will not be able to change her mind without losing face. Too often, negotiators will escalate commitment to an ultimatum and even sacrifice their own best interests if that’s the only way for them to save face.

If ignoring an ultimatum is not possible or you can’t comfortably move on to other issues without acknowledging it, there is another option: reframing the statement as a non-ultimatum before continuing with the conversation.

For example, if someone says, “I will never do this,” you might respond: “I can understand, given where we are today, that this would be very difficult for you to do.” This gives the person two ways out. First, you’ve pointed out that acquiescing would be “very difficult” but not impossible. Second, you’ve situated the negotiator’s reluctance “given where we are today” but perhaps not forever.

Of course, there is always a possibility that the ultimatum was a real one—that the other party’s hands are truly tied and her demands really are non-negotiable. What if you ignored the ultimatum and it was real?

Even in those cases, opening by ignoring or reframing the ultimatum is a sound approach. If it is a real ultimatum, don’t worry: The negotiator will repeat it over and over again in countless ways in future conversations. At the appropriate time, based on your evaluation of the situation, you can decide to take it seriously.

In my experience, however, many “ultimatums” are not true deal breakers. Sometimes people are simply feeling emotional, are trying to assert control, or are using strong language in an attempt to gain some tactical advantage. In such cases, if you have ignored or reframed their statements, you may have done both sides a favor.

Deepak Malhotra
Eli Goldston Professor of
Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Author, Negotiating the Impossible:
How to Break Deadlocks and
Resolve Ugly Conflicts (Without
Money or Muscle) (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2016)

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