Negotiating the Impossible by Deepak Malhotra


Negotiating the Impossible by Deepak Malhotra

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Harvard Business School’s Deepak Malhotra offers you three powerful tools – “empathy,” “process” and “framing” – for successful negotiation. Malhotra describes each technique, gives concrete tips on using it and offers historical examples of its application. He relates how President John F. Kennedy used empathy to defuse the Cuban missile crisis, and how Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal overcame religious resistance to the introduction of television by reframing it as a medium for disseminating the Quran.[/text_block]

In this summary, you will learn

  • Why negotiations break down;
  • What methods you can use to keep negotiations on track;
  • How “framing,” “process” and “empathy” can help you negotiate successfully; and
  • How to identify and break negotiating barriers.


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Breaking a Stalemate

When a negotiation collapses – the other side won’t budge an inch or acts with seeming malice – you may view the other parties as an enemy you must counterattack. Instead, turn to powerful, often overlooked strategies to cultivate a more collaborative, value-creating negotiation: “empathy,” “process” and “framing.”

“The Power of Framing”

When the other side balks at a proposal, consider how you “frame” it. The frame – the way you package and present your proposal – matters as much as its substance. Framing is powerful because it allows you to make proposals that are basically the same “more or less attractive simply by how you present them.”

Framing helped resolve the 2011 contract dispute between National Football League team owners and players. The main point of contention was how to divide profits. The players wanted the owners to split the money 50-50. The owners offered the players a 58% share – but only after they scooped a credit of $2 billion dollars off the top. With the fate of the upcoming season in jeopardy, the owners broke the deadlock with a new frame: another profit-sharing model. They suggested dividing the profits into three “buckets.” One bucket gave the players more than half the profits from TV rights, while the other buckets – including stadium and postseason revenue – favored the owners. Both sides were able to “declare victory.”

Try to influence the frame of an entire negotiation. For instance, frame a negotiation as a session of “collaborative problem solving,” instead of as a “winner-takes-all” situation.

Shape the frame of negotiations, either by establishing the frame yourself in the first place or by “reframing” an existing arrangement. Gain the “first-mover advantage” – the first frame that takes hold will become the default.

When you come into a negotiation that has an existing frame, evaluate it quickly and move to modify it as soon as possible.

Framing can mitigate two problems that frequently drag down negotiations:

  1. The “audience problem” – The other side worries about what they will get out of the deal and about how they will sell the agreement to their constituents. Frame your offer so the other side can describe the deal as a victory.
  2. The “zero-sum problem” – This occurs when negotiations concern a single issue. Any concessions may seem like a gain for the other side. Offer a concession on a tangential issue that is less important to you in order to create the narrative that both sides are making sacrifices. Even when you work on multiple issues, one issue can turn into a sticking point. To mitigate this problem, split the issue into two or more parts, as the NFL did. Or shift the focus away from the parties’ conflicting demands and onto their underlying common interests.
Framing in Decision Making

Frame your proposals more effectively by understanding the quirks of human decision making. According to social scientists James March and Johan Olsen, people don’t perform a strict “cost-benefit” analysis when they make decisions. Instead, they pick what appears to be the most “appropriate” choice, based on several criteria:

  • “Social proof” – Social psychologist Robert Cialdini explains that people will often judge an option to be appropriate if they see other people making the same choice. To boost the appeal of an option, demonstrate or signal that it is popular with others.
  • “The default option” – Enhance an option by framing it as the standard choice. Dr. Behfar Ehdaie at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center experienced this approach when advising prostate cancer patients. Because prostate cancer develops slowly, Ehdaie recommends monitoring the cancer with six-month checkups rather than using surgery or radiotherapy. Most new patients assumed surgery was the most likely option – the default – and resisted when Ehdaie proposed an alternative. When the doctor changed his approach and described monitoring as the default – offering surgery or radiation as alternatives – the percentage of patients who chose monitoring rose by 35%.
  • “The reference point” – Determine the reference point that the other side uses to evaluate a proposal. If it is not appropriate, offer an alternative. Ehdaie says that without a proper reference point, patients thought that a six-month interval between checkups seemed too long. Now he establishes a frame at the beginning by explaining that changes in prostate cancer typically don’t occur for 10 years after a diagnosis. He assures the patient that checking every five years would be safe, but that he will play it safe and check every six months.
“Strategic Ambiguity”

Sometimes neither side can compromise or accede to a demand. This happens in political negotiations where, because of the problem of appeasing an outside audience, neither side can afford even symbolic concessions. The US and India encountered this problem in 2007 when they negotiated a nuclear weapons agreement. The US demanded that India not conduct nuclear tests. India would accept the agreement only if it retained the right to conduct such tests.

The solution: strategic ambiguity. When you craft an agreement that never explicitly sets down each side’s responsibilities, it allows each side to present the outcome to its audience as a win. This tactic only works when both sides have an incentive to uphold the agreement. India’s leaders, for instance, can tell their citizens that the nation maintained the right to conduct tests. They privately know that doing so would trigger an unwelcome US reaction.

Modify a Frame

When you can’t modify an existing frame, “yield” to the frame and co-opt it. For instance, in 1965, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia met with resistance from religious conservatives when he planned to introduce television to the country. Instead of rejecting their religious frame, he embraced it. By arranging to have the country’s first broadcast include a recitation of the Quran, he showed how his proposal could support and bolster religious interests.

Another form of yielding occurs when you want to modify one of the other side’s major demands. If you attack their demand, they become defensive. Instead, ask them to craft the provision but stipulate that it has to meet certain conditions. If you hand the other side the power to modify the provision, they are more likely to comply.

The Power of “Process”

Consider process as the nuts and bolts of the negotiation. It includes who will participate, what will be on the agenda and in what order you will take up issues. Establish the process as the first step in a negotiation. An agreed-upon format can help prevent deadlocks and ugly conflicts as well as costly mistakes, such as ill-timed concessions.

Make sure both sides understand the process and commit to following it. To make it harder to renege on the process agreement, negotiators should make an unambiguous public statement of their commitment. Check with the other party frequently to ensure that you remain in sync about where you are in the process.

Threats to Process

Without a commitment to process, you cannot preserve “forward momentum.” Behaviors that undermine the negotiating process include:

  • Pursuing a short-term advantage – When you disrupt the process to pursue an immediate advantage, you bring progress to a halt and inspire retaliation.
  • Overemphasis on consensus – Aiming for 100% agreement can undermine the possibility of a deal. Instead, consider “sufficient consensus.” In this model, parties agree that negotiations can proceed as long as a specified percentage of participants approve of each proposal. Use sufficient consensus for preliminary parleying, and let everyone vote on the final agreement.
  • Transparency – On difficult negotiations, transparency can hinder the bargaining process. Don’t subject every proposal or concession to scrutiny before you’ve completed the deal. Let negotiators horse-trade in private before letting all of their constituents decide whether the deal is acceptable.
  • Too much focus on process – When negotiators set up the 1968 Vietnam peace talks in Paris, they spent six weeks arguing about the shape of the negotiating table. Attempting to design a perfect process impedes progress. When you find yourself stuck on procedural issues, hold process negotiations in parallel with substantive talks – or, hammer out an imperfect process everyone can live with, and revise it later.
The Power of “Empathy”

Empathy lets you view negotiations from the other side’s perspective, and understand and anticipate their moves. This helps when your counterparts appear to act maliciously or irrationally. People sometimes reject the use of empathy because they confuse it with sympathy. Your goal is not to justify the other side’s behavior, but to understand it. When you are able to discern the possible motives behind their actions, you multiply your options for responding.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy applied empathy to resolve the Cuban missile crisis, a conflict over Soviet construction of nuclear missile sites in Cuba. If JFK had assumed the Soviets were acting out of malice, he might have responded with air strikes. Instead, he understood the Soviet perspective. The Russians sought to balance US nuclear advantages, including US missile-launching sites in Turkey and Italy. Under a negotiated settlement, the USSR agreed to remove missiles from Cuba when the US promised to dismantle the Turkey and Italy sites.


To broaden your options, identify the barriers that could thwart a deal:

  1. “Psychological barriers” – The biases or suspicions that parties bring to the table.
  2. “Structural barriers” – These are systemic constraints such as time limits, media scrutiny or lack of information.
  3. “Tactical barriers” – These include cutthroat maneuvers, such as limiting the negotiating options by publicly insisting on unacceptable positions.
Think “Trilaterally”

Remember that negotiations often involve more than the two parties at the table. To anticipate the other side’s actions, factor in the influence of third parties. Create a “map” of the “negotiation space” that includes every party.

Analyze each participant based on four criteria:

  1. “Interests” – To craft deals that benefit everyone, determine their goals and priorities.
  2. “Constraints” – Determine where the parties are and aren’t flexible, and whether those conditions might change.
  3. “Alternatives” – To get a sense of the value of your proposals, try to find out if the other side has options if this deal falls through.
  4. “Perspective” – What is their attitude toward the deal? How does it serve their long- or short-term goals and strategies?
Stay Engaged

Regardless of how a negotiation turns out, maintain good relationships with other parties afterward. If the negotiations break down, work on building mutual trust that you can draw on for future negotiations. Stay engaged after a successful deal. Take advantage of opportunities to improve the deal. Even successful negotiations spawn residual conflicts, so keep communicating.[/text_block]

About the Author

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Deepak Malhotra is the Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School where he teaches negotiation. He won the HBS Faculty Award in 2011. An international consultant, he also wrote Negotiation Genius and I Moved Your Cheese.


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