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HBX Business Blog

How to Negotiate (Even When Everything Seems Hopeless)

Posted by Professor Mike Wheeler on August 25, 2016 at 10:37 AM


This post was originally published on Linkedin Pulse.

If you want to be a great negotiator, you have to be a great improviser. There’s no choice in the matter. You can’t script the process. It’s too unpredictable. The people you deal with will have their own ideas about how things should go.

That’s why we all can learn from master improvisers in other fields, especially jazz. I described a business application of this principle in one of my early posts. In another—on the importance of paying heed—I quoted pianist Herbie Hancock of sometimes being so focused that “I’m listening with my toes.”

Today’s negotiation lesson comes from trumpeter Miles Davis who said, “It’s the notes that you don’t play that matter.” 

I found another great example of how this maxim applies powerfully to negotiation in my colleague Deepak Malhotra’s new book Negotiating the Impossible. Right there on page 145 in bold type he channels Miles by saying: “Ignore ultimatums. The more attention you give to them, the harder it will be for the other side to back down if the situation changes.” 

He’s absolutely right. (I only wish the book was available back in January when I wrote a post on dealing with take-it-or-leave it job offers, as his advice applies there, as well.) 

When someone says, “absolutely not” or “it’s against company policy,” the natural impulse is to ask why or ask for an exception--or to challenge the assertion itself. But often it’s smarter to let the remark pass without comment. Your counterpart may have spoken in haste. Given time, he or she may soften their position—provided you haven’t reinforced it. 

The worst thing to do is to rise to the bait. Don’t ask if they really mean what they just said. If someone paints themself into a corner, why hand them another bucket? Instead, let the moment pass, as Miles said. It’s in the same spirit of the feisty credo of the actress Ruth Gordon (the star of the cult classic, Harold and Maude.) “I never face facts,” she said. “I never listen to good advice. I’m a slow starter but I always get there.” 

But what if your counterpart persists? Deepak recommends re-framing the ultimatum using less rigid language so it’s easier for them to back down. If not now, then maybe later. For example, say something like, “I can understand how, given where things stand today, this would be difficult for you to do . . .” 

Note how much those three italicized words pack so much meaning into that short phrase: 

  • Understand is an acknowledgment that you have heard their problem, so they don’t have to state again;
  • Today reminds them that things may change, especially if you can jointly tackle their underlying constraints; and
  • Difficult sounds more pliable than impossible. It implies that somewhere within a tangled problem, there’s a solution struggling to find its way out. 

This style of response is what another colleague of ours, Deborah Kolb, calls a “turn.” It’s a deft rephrasing that keeps the door open for further discussion. Done well the transformation might take hold without even being noticed. 

Deepak realizes, of course, that some ultimatums are truly non-negotiable, but thinks there’s little harm in ignoring one when you first hear it. If it is real, he says, “they will repeat it over and over again, in all kinds of contexts and in all kinds of ways.” 

That advice reflects Deepak’s refreshing perspective on the overall negotiation process. He is skeptical about street wisdom such as never make the first offer, or always negotiate on your own turf. Depending on the circumstances, what would be right in one situation might be disastrous in another. 

It comes down to making judgment calls, he says, case by case. And that requires operating from more general principles such as controlling the frame, being mindful of optics, and helping others save face (all of which are factors in deciding how to respond to ultimatums). 

Thinking about the wisdom of (sometimes) not facing facts and ignoring ultimatums (at least the first time you hear them) reminded me of a case I was involved in years ago. I was a member of the local land use planning board. Seldom did all five of us agree on the applications that came before us. But in one instance, we turned down a developer’s proposal with an unequivocal five to zero negative vote.

When we announced our decision, the guy cheerfully said, “Okay. What’s the next step?” 

He acted as if he had just won the first round—which was nuts under the circumstances. Anyone with sense would have given up. But this fellow came back again and at least two more times after that. He revised his plans and we tweaked our policy. Ultimately his project got built. 

Hats off to him! And my guess is that Miles and Deepak would give him two thumbs up for ignoring our initial veto. 

PS: If you’re interested in learning more about Deepak’s work, here's a recent interview with him.


About the Author

Professor Mike Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He is the author or co-author of eleven books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015. Professor Wheeler is developing a new HBX program on Negotiation which will launch in early 2017.


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