Positional Bargaining Pitfalls

In positional bargaining, negotiators tend to focus on trying to “win” at the expense of generating better, long-lasting agreements and relationships. An interest-based approach can bring better results.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

positional bargaining

When they think of negotiation, many people imagine a positional bargaining scenario where two people are haggling back-and-forth over the price of an item, both refusing to budge. In positional bargaining, “each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions to reach a compromise,” write Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton in their classic negotiation text Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

Positional bargaining may sound like business as usual, but it shouldn’t be. In fact, positional bargaining is typically an ineffective way of reaching an agreement for numerous reasons, including the following three, according to the authors of Getting to Yes:

  1. Positional bargaining produces unwise agreements. Negotiators who bargain over positions are typically reluctant to back down. Parties become so interested in “saving face” that they lose sight of what else they might gain.
  2. Positional bargaining is ineffective. In positional bargaining, negotiators often try to best their counterpart by opening with an extreme position and then focus only on how to counteroffer without budging. Extreme offers and small concessions can drag out the negotiation process much longer than it needs to be.
  3. Positional bargaining harms the relationship. Positional bargaining often becomes a “contest of wills,” with each side trying to pressure the other to back down. “Anger and resentment often result” if one party thinks they have sacrificed too much, according to Fisher, Ury, and Patton.

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Beyond Positional Bargaining

How can negotiators move beyond the natural tendency to engage in positional bargaining and capitalize on the benefits of negotiation in business, while preserving and even improving their relationship? Here are some useful skills needed for negotiation:

  1. Move beyond positions to interests. In positional bargaining, negotiators often become so focused on their demands that they forget to explain why they want what they want. Take the classic example of two sisters arguing over a single orange. One sister wants the orange rind for a cake she’s baking, and the other sister wants to squeeze the orange to make juice. A split-the-difference, positional bargaining outcome might result in them simply arguing over the orange and, eventually, reluctantly deciding to cut it in half. Only by revealing the interests underlying their positions could they reach a mutually beneficial outcome—the rind for one sister and the juice for the other. Revealing the interests behind your position is the key to creative dealmaking.
  2. Strive to create value, not just claim it. In positional bargaining, negotiators assume that whatever they achieve comes at the other party’s expense, and vice versa. This fixed-pie mindset stands in the way of value creation, which begins with the type of exploration of interests we just described. Returning to the orange example, what if the sisters discussed ways to get more oranges so they’d have more rind and juice to divide? To move beyond a value-claiming negotiation, you will need to view each other as collaborators, not just competitors.
  3. Be inquisitive. Opening up about your interests will help you move beyond positional bargaining, but don’t assume your counterpart will be as forthcoming. Explain that you’re looking to expand the number of issues up for discussion in the hope of identifying tradeoffs and improving both parties’ outcomes. Ask questions about their interests; your counterpart will likely ask you questions in return. This type of dialogue is likely to identify issues that one party values less and the other party values more, setting you up for efficient trades—as in the case of one sister giving up the rind to get the juice of the orange, and vice versa.
  4. Focus on relationship building. Though some negotiations are one-off interactions, as in the case of a negotiation between a tourist and a vendor at a rug bazaar, negotiations generally tend to be between people who might, or will definitely will, have an ongoing relationship with each other. To ensure you don’t get trapped into positional bargaining, you might tell your counterpart upfront that you hope to build a trusting relationship by ensuring that both parties are satisfied with the final deal. Explain that this doesn’t mean you’re going to make a lot of concessions, but that you see value in working together to explore interests and identify issues—fundamental aspects of negotiation. Taking time to build rapport through “small talk” can also help establish a basis of trust.

 What other strategies do you recommend for moving beyond positional bargaining?

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