How can we overcome negotiation impasses?

September 12, 2021

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How can we overcome negotiation impasses?

A team of leading experts in negotiations examined the impact of impasses in negotiations. Much of the available research on negotiations ignores the problem of impasses – situations in which one or two parties discontinue the negotiation, because one or both parties prefer no agreement, or because they could not reach an agreement even if they would have benefited from the agreement.  

What the researchers say: “Many business activities entail negotiations, whether it’s defining a deadline, convincing a stakeholder to support a new strategy, or deciding on a business acquisition,” the lead author said. “Research shows that leaders spend around 15% to 26% of their working hours negotiating – and many of these negotiations end without an agreement. Understanding why negotiations end with an impasse can help leaders become more effective, improve business outcomes, and make employees happier.”

The researchers reviewed and systematically coded more than 1,000 research papers on negotiations to understand what we know about why negotiations end without an agreement. Three specific types of negotiation impasses emerged from this careful analysis, and each impasse type requires specific solutions to be resolved.

Wanted impasses occur when both parties desire an impasse, potentially caused by egocentric biases, time pressure, impoverished communication channels, or simply because they have more attractive alternatives. Wanted impasses can be resolved by negotiating on the levels of interest not positions, accelerating negotiation processes, and offering symbolic concessions. Alicia and I would call this needs-based negotiation.

Forced impasses occur when one party seeks an impasse against the will of the other party and can be caused by interpersonal factors including extreme first offers, dominance, and anger expressions. Forced impasses are resolved by taking the other party’s perspective, swapping lead negotiators, and eventually mediation or arbitration.  

Unwanted impasses occur when neither party seeks an impasse, and the negotiation still ends without an agreement. Unwanted impasses can be caused by high levels of informational complexity, distorted framing of the negotiation, or by agents. Unwanted impasses can be resolved by framing the negotiation so that both parties recognize the negotiation’s win-win potential, by reducing the agent fees, or by simplifying complex information.

The negotiation experts suggest that academic research on negotiation impasses is rare, partially because negotiation exercises assume that a deal will take place and ignore how to deal with negotiations that end without an agreement.

“In classroom and laboratory situations, impasses are rare,” the researchers noted. “Their prevalence in the real world (around 29% of negotiations, according to our survey) is not mirrored in the negotiation literature. Leaders need to be effective when negotiations are deadlocked, and negotiation scholars should help leaders with that.”

The findings can help management scholars understand the mechanism underlying challenges across all kinds of negotiations, whether they are at the personal, professional, or organizational level.  

So, what? In our experience, negotiations fail for a number of reasons separate from those that the researchers outline, though connected to them.

Firstly, the negotiators have not really worked out what their real needs are and have not discovered what the other party really needs. Mostly what we put forward as a position in negotiations are what we think our needs are. Mostly—even at the highest level—these are not thought through. Research has shown that we are wrong about our real needs around 80% of the time.

Even worse, negotiators often fail to discover what the other party is really looking for. In a merger, for example, is the need of the parties efficiency, market share or status? Are the first two just camouflage for the last? Can the need for status be met in other ways? Or is it safety—would the CEO of one company feel safer leading a larger organization?

Secondly, the dialogue between the parties leaves all sorts of impasse traps for the unwary. In failed negotiations which we have observed we have noted the following:

  • Generalizations. The parties are not specific in their language, and this leads to misunderstandings. Take the phrase: “We’ll form a joint committee to examine this issue.” Sounds great, except it’s meaningless. “Joint committee” is a hidden generalization in that it looks specific and could well lead to trouble down the line. The other party should ask “What do you mean by that?” Probably the person who uttered the phrase had no idea what he meant by it. Being able to spot generalizations is the prime talent of a good negotiator.
  • Too many negative statements. I have rarely heard praise of the other party in these negotiations. I have heard a bundle of negative statements such as: “We’ve no appetite for that proposal,” “We tried that before and it didn’t work,” “Come back to me with something I can accept.” Each of these is a negotiation killer. In any negotiation the ratio of positive to negative statements should be at least 5:1 – too often it’s the other way around.
  • Too few questions, too many statements. In any good negotiation the ratio of questions to statements should be 5:4. Questions are essential for an examination of real needs and they enable the conversation to delve deeper into the issues and uncover traps which will lead to an impasse. They also allow you to find out about the individual or team that you are negotiating with and get on their wavelength.
  • Poor listening skills. Research has shown that we only really hear or take in 40% of what other people are saying. This is true in negotiations as well. Mostly it’s because we’re reloading—thinking about what we’re going to say next rather than what we’re being told. We also stop listening when someone says something that goes against our biases, assumptions or beliefs. It’s called the perceptual filter.

Largely because of these stumbling blocks, not only do negotiations often reach an impasse, but even when they don’t and the negotiations are a “success”, about 80% of the time the end result is a failure.

For more on negotiation click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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