How to negotiate situations that feel hopeless

Deepak Malhotra, in his new book, Negotiating the Impossible, outlines key lessons for negotiating sticky situations

By Carmen Nobel
Published: Apr 18, 2016

Whether you’re angling for a raise, hammering out a deal, or trying to forge peace between warring nations, there are times when the prospects for success can feel bleak at best. Nobody understands this better than Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra, whose teaching, research, and advisory work focuses on negotiation—including both deal-making and conflict resolution.

In his new book, Negotiating the Impossible, Malhotra outlines key lessons for negotiating sticky situations, with examples that include the Cuban Missile Crisis, the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland, and several instances of high-stakes deal-making where companies found themselves negotiating against the odds.

Deepak Malhotra is Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School
Deepak Malhotra is Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School
Working Knowledge recently interviewed Malhotra about resolving seemingly impossible negotiation situations.

Carmen Nobel: How does this book differ from other books on negotiation?
Deepak Malhotra:
One question that people always ask is how they can negotiate more effectively when things seem hopeless. There are certainly other books that offer thoughts on this issue, but when people have asked me to recommend a book that deals with very challenging situations, I’ve not had a good answer. That’s why I wrote this book.

I have come to believe that even the most difficult of negotiation problems have potential solutions. That’s why I wrote this book: to make the case that we can learn to better handle seemingly impossible (and even more mundane) situations, and to give people the tools they need to do so.

Q: You note in your book that people too often equate negotiation with haggling or debating, or hammering out a deal. Why is that a mistake, and how do you define negotiation instead?
Having advised on everything from high-stakes business deals to peace agreements with terrorists, from job offers to ceasefires to family business conflicts, I can say with confidence that negotiation is not about dollars or cents. Nor is it about lives lost or lives saved, or about any one currency. No matter the context or the stakes involved, negotiation is always, fundamentally, about human interaction.

Whether we are trying to structure a strategic relationship, get more money, stop bullets, or deescalate emotions, the question we are always confronting in the world of negotiation is this: How can we engage with other human beings in such a way as to achieve better understandings and agreements?

It doesn’t matter whether that agreement is going to be written down on a piece of paper. So we should define negotiation accordingly: Negotiation is the process by which two or more parties who perceive a difference in interests or perspective attempt to reach agreement.

Haggling or debating might be a component of what happens in a negotiation, but it is the tip of the iceberg at best—and in many situations, a haggling or debating mindset can get you in trouble. Haggling and debating are zero-sum approaches. Most negotiations are not zero-sum games, so any zero-sum metaphor we use (“it’s like chess” or “it’s like poker”) is dangerously flawed.

Even war is not a zero-sum game. You will often have more than one winner, or more than one loser. It is possible to have outcomes that are better or worse for all parties. You don’t necessarily have to beat them to achieve your objectives—or, you may need to collaborate with them on some issues even while you are competing on others.

Q: Your book notes the importance of having a process strategy before entering negotiations. What is a process strategy, and what factors should someone consider when forming one?
As an example, let’s look at one of the many lessons from this part of the book: negotiate process before substance.

Consider the following situation. You have been negotiating for months and are finally at a point where you believe that the end is in sight and an agreement might be possible. There are a few concessions that you have been saving up to help cross the finish line. You make these concessions, and the other side responds, “Thank you. This is very helpful. Now let me just speak to my boss and see what she thinks about the progress we’ve made so far.”

You are shocked: You have a boss? I thought we were finished. I have nothing left to give. This is a problem of not having negotiated process before substance. Before you jump into a discussion of deal-terms, or start exchanging concessions, it is a good idea to first negotiate the process. This involves clarifying and shaping the path that will get you from where you are today to the end goal.

For example, you want to ask questions such as: How long does it take an organization like yours to get from where we are to a signed deal? Who are all of the parties that need to be on board? What factors might speed up or slow down progress? What are we planning to cover in next week’s meeting? When will we address the following concerns?

The book also looks at the importance of shaping/controlling the process, what to do when the other side reneges on the process they earlier agreed to, and how not to get too bogged down on process issues.

Q: You write about empathy, noting, “The mistake people make is to think that empathy is what you use when you want to be nice.” How does empathy actually benefit the empathizer in negotiations? And can empathy be learned?
Empathy is about understanding, as well as possible, the interests, constraints, alternatives, and perspective of the other parties. This is not about being nice or generous—empathy is essential for achieving your own objectives in the deal.

If you do not understand what drives them (their interests), you will have a hard time structuring a viable agreement, and you will not know how much leverage you have in dealing with them. If you do not understand their constraints, you may ask for things that are impossible, while miss opportunities for resolving the conflict in ways that they could actually accept. If you do not understand their alternatives, you will misjudge how strong or weak they are, and how much value you bring to the table. Finally, if you do not understand their perspective—how they are making sense of this deal or dispute, you will not be able to anticipate all of the barriers to getting the deal done.

Ironically, empathy is needed most when you are dealing with people who seem to deserve it least. When you are negotiating with people who are behaving in aggressive or seemingly inexplicable ways, it is tempting to simply write them off as irrational or evil—but this limits your own options, because you get blinded to the possibility that there is a way forward that reconciles each side’s needs and concerns. When you instead seek to understand how they justify their actions to themselves, you have the possibility of identifying additional paths for resolving the conflict. This does not mean you have to have sympathy for them, or to agree that their demands and perspective are legitimate. But you must make the effort to understand why they deem them to be appropriate. The greater your capacity for empathy, the more likely you find a way forward.

Can empathy be learned? There are two answers. To cultivate a greater natural proclivity for empathy can take time—you are changing long-held beliefs or tendencies. On the other hand, you can start to change your behaviors very quickly. You can ask more questions in your negotiations to better ascertain the other parties’ interests. If you are unsure of how they are constrained, you can propose multiple options for structuring a deal, instead of making just one offer, to avoid getting locked into a path that ends in impasse. You can decide not to respond too quickly to seemingly hostile or irrational behaviors. These are all behavioral changes that you can start to implement today.

Q: What’s the toughest negotiation you’ve ever experienced or observed?
Some of the more interesting and challenging business negotiations tend to arise when I’m advising small companies (e.g., early-stage ventures) who are negotiating with bigger, established players on complex or high-stakes strategic deals. Sometimes, the party on the other side is not only your best potential partner, but also your biggest competitor. They have deeper pockets and more options; you’re not sure whether they want to partner in your success or find a way to destroy you.

As for “toughest” negotiations, these are usually situations where governments are trying to negotiate an end to armed conflict. There are many parties, a history of mistrust, hostility and grievances, and interests that range from economic, to security, to political, to ideological, to matters of pride and identity. I firmly believe that any problem humans have created can ultimately be solved by humans. It may not be solved today. It may not even be solvable today (or on the timescale we would prefer). But we can be wiser in crafting our strategy and more deliberate as we chart a path towards eventual resolution. A final point on this: The toughest negotiations require more patience, perseverance, courage, empathy and humility than we carry along with us on most days—or is typically rewarded in politics. This makes things that are already difficult even more so.

Q: What are you working on now?
I have a number of projects underway. One of them looks at how we might help surgeons communicate more effectively with cancer patients, to help patients achieve better outcomes. More specifically, we are trying to leverage negotiation principles to lower the rate of unnecessary surgeries among certain types of low risk patients—i.e., those for whom surgery would not extend life, but would have negative consequences for patient quality of life.

In another project, we are looking at gun violence. For example, do mass shootings lead to changes in gun policies? If so, what is the impact? Also, can we identify changes in policy that might lead to a reduction in homicides, suicides, and/or accidental deaths? Finally, I’m working on a number of case analyses of failed, successful, and ongoing negotiations between governments and armed insurgents (e.g., El Salvador, Colombia, Northern Ireland and Nigeria). So, in a sense, it’s a bit of a dark portfolio: cancer, gun violence, and terrorism. Hopefully something of value comes of it!

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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