Metaphorical Negotiation and Defining Negotiation Skills

The definition of negotiation and adapting your negotiation skills to different bargaining contexts

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Negotiators talk about building agreements, bluffing the opposition, and volleying offers back and forth. According to mediator Thomas Smith, careful attention to such metaphors can reveal deeper meaning beneath the explicit words that people use, notably regarding how they view the negotiation process and their relationship to one another.

Metaphors, after all, help us understand the world and how we function in it. Recognizing how one situation is like another allows us to develop standard frameworks and routines. Metaphors both clarify our vision and distort it, however. For example, seeing negotiation as warfare allows us to borrow strategies and tactics from the battlefield but may blind us to the fact that negotiation is also much like a dance.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Thomas Smith used research that analyzed improvised real estate negotiation transcripts in which one party spoke of a provision that “would get us both in the game, both working towards the same thing.” The metaphor suggested that the parties act as teammates seeking a common goal. Such appeals may be rhetorical, of course, and mask more sinister motives. Even so, they create the language and images that shape people’s interactions.

According to Gerald Zaltman, professor emeritus of Harvard Business School, some of our most powerful metaphors are visual, not linguistic. We dream in pictures, after all, not in memos and spreadsheets. Zaltman has developed a patented technique for eliciting our unspoken images, though negotiators at the bargaining table must rely on practical judgment to divine the real meanings behind what people are saying. “Metaphor awareness,” as Smith terms it, may not come easily, but even imperfect knowledge “can open additional avenues for exploration of real needs and possibilities for mutual gain.”

What skills could you improve upon to help you at the bargaining table? Leave a comment.

Related Negotiation Skills Article: ZOPA Negotiation (Zone of Possible Agreement) and Bargaining Between Friends


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Originally published March 2013.

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4 Responses to “Metaphorical Negotiation and Defining Negotiation Skills”

  • Useful article. Some negotiators in my own research and experience use what I call ‘layered metaphor’. For example, Sir Alan Donald, former British Ambassador to China and a few other places, likens negotiation to board games, which he in turn describes and analyses using military metaphor. Other veteran negotiators also liken negotiation to games and sports, which they see as battles they usually try to convert into something more benign as they manoeuvre the action along a continuum from combat to collaboration.

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