The One Thing You Should Always Ignore During Negotiations

May 18, 2016, 1:00 AM UTC
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The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How can you be a good negotiator? is written by Deepak Malhotra, Harvard Business School professor.

Negotiating is an essential skill for young professionals and CEOs alike. Every workday provides fresh opportunities for doing deals, resolving disputes, and managing conflict. But good intentions and great ideas aren’t enough. People with opposing views or entrenched positions can bring the necessary give-and-take to a halt, even when both sides propose valid arguments.

Here are five ways to keep negotiations productive, even when dealing with the toughest of situations:

  1. Establish process first

Effective dealmakers establish a clear process before negotiations begin in order to avoid costly delays and unhelpful surprises. For example, you might think you’ve just closed a brilliant deal, but you then hear, “Great. Now just let me check with my boss.” Before negotiations begin, ask the right questions: Who are the key players and decision makers? What is a realistic timeline for signing the deal? What might speed things up or slow things down? How do both sides measure progress?

  1. Set expectations

A CEO in South Asia once told me that he never does deals with anyone from the U.S. unless they are willing to fly into his city and drive from the airport to his manufacturing facilities—a distance of less than 20 kilometers that takes almost three hours to travel. Why? “Unless they’ve experienced that, they don’t know how things work here. The first time something goes wrong, they assume we are incompetent or stealing from them,” he says. Effective negotiators are careful not to over-promise, and set appropriate expectations to ensure that delays and other disruptions do not unnecessarily derail the process or sour the relationship.

See also: This Is the Secret to a Successful Negotiation

  1. Ignore ultimatums

Phrases such as “we will never” and “take it or leave it” often get tossed around in negotiations, especially as emotions heighten. Many ultimatums are not true deal breakers. Often, they are triggered by the other side’s desire to assert control, gain tactical advantage, or vent frustration. If you give such statements too much attention and importance, it will be hard for the other side to back down without losing face. Ignoring the ultimatum makes it easier for them to be flexible.

  1. Ask “why?”—not “what?”

Don’t get entrenched on “what” each side wants. The demands each side is making might be incompatible. Shifting the question from “what” to “why” helps focus on underlying interests, which are more likely to be reconcilable. For example, if one side is demanding more time and the other is unwilling to delay closing, understanding the underlying reasons for more time (such as a lack of liquidity, not a desire to shop the deal around) might lead to agreement on an extension.


  1. Stay flexible

The more currencies you accept, the more likely you are to get paid. Sometimes people say “no” or seem inflexible because their hands are truly tied. Instead of insisting on one proposal, consider presenting multiple offers. This signals adaptability and reduces the likelihood that legitimate constraints will lead to an impasse. The sooner you can assess the constraints and where there is room for flexibility and compromise, the sooner you will get to a deal that benefits everyone.

Deepak Malhotra is the Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He has consulted on hundreds of high-stakes negotiations, deadlocked deals, diplomatic stalemates and protracted conflicts. A bestselling author, his new book, Negotiating the Impossible (Berrett-Koehler 2016), offers principles to apply in everyday life, whether negotiating job offers, resolving business disputes, or tackling obstacles in personal relationships. His research on negotiation and dispute resolution has been published in top journals in the fields of management, psychology, conflict resolution and foreign policy.