How to unstick a stuck negotiation

Sometimes it seems we just get stuck at impasse in certain negotiations. A family member’s fun and games with one of our larger insurance companies comes to mind. In that instance, both parties took positions and dug in. That’s not going to help; but it doesn’t therefore follow that the only way is compromise.

With the proviso that both parties need to want to reach a resolution, rather than crush each other, negotiations can be unstuck and moved to agreement.

The thing to realise is that, at some level in some way, both parties agree on something. Or at least there is something they have in common. It’s vital that we remind ourselves of that when negotiations get stuck.

In Neuro Linguistic Programming jargon, ‘chunking up’ is the process of scaling up both parties’ interests until a shared goal or interest is identified. Because disagreement, and stuck negotiations, tend to happen around detail. So we need to scale or ‘chunk’ up to a bigger picture view and identify where we do agree, before we can work on the nitty gritty detail.

  • So say we are disagreeing and stuck about the price of something. That’s at the detail end of the spectrum where the big conceptual picture is at the other end. If we stay at that point on the spectrum – “I want a discount” = “Well I’m not giving you one!” – we’re just going to dig in and get stuck. However, if we chunk up we’ll probably find something we can agree on.
  • For example, the product’s great: the buyer really likes it and the seller knows it’s a great product. So the seller can chunk up to remind the buyer what they like about the product, let’s say it’s a car. They may ask the buyer, “What do you value about cars in general?” This will help identify what the buyer wants from their car – maybe it’s excitement, prestige, or fun – and in doing so the buyer will be reminded of that. The seller can outline the ways in which this car provides those things and check the buyer agrees that it does indeed do that. So there’s a mini agreement.
  • The seller might want to check that the buyer wants and needs the features this car’s got. They may ask the buyer, “What do you like most about this car?” and get a clear idea of the buyer’s priorities. The seller will also be quickly figuring out how many other cars can match those features.
  • The seller may then feel confident to chunk down to a bit more detail and ask the buyer “What’s most important to you, specification or price?” to help both them and the client understand some of the levers in the negotiation. Let’s say the buyer responds with “spec”, then we know that this car delivers the desired spec, so we’re still agreed that this is the car for them.
  • The seller may then chunk down some more and ask, “What are your top 3 or 4 must-haves in terms of specification?”, which is now getting into much more detail. They could then ask the buyer to rank them, or maybe to sort ‘must-haves’ from ‘nice-to-haves’. This is then giving the seller the opportunity to decide what they can add to the deal to clinch the price they want, or what they may be able to take off the price if spec is reduced.

So if you find a negotiation is stalling, stop and think, then work together to establish what you both have in common, what your shared goals are. This is at the big picture end of the spectrum, and chunk down to get the details agreed. If it stalls again, chunk up to establish agreement before chunking down again.

There’s a great example of a life-or-death negotiation using this technique, discussed in Radio 4’s brilliant ‘Business Daily’ series. Just click on their podcast link and scroll down to ‘Negotiation for dummies’.

Comments are closed.