It is unusual to reach the Conclude Stage of negotiations, where all major issues have been resolved, and find yourself at an unexpected impasse. Impasse describes the situation where an obstacle stands in the way of the parties reaching agreement – the obstacle can be an idea, a position, or a person. Impasse can be temporary, and need not lead to deadlock, a situation of more permanent disagreement. Coming to impasse is often an indication you have not flushed out all the interests.
Most often you assess alignment of interests in the Exchange Stage, and revisit it early in bargaining. You long ago determined whether you would need to implement your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA. Yet you can misread the situation (cooperative or competitive), or have been deceived about a parties' interests and find yourself at impasse.
There is still hope if you want to reach an agreement. If you reach impasse on an issue in the Bargain Stage, or at the end of negotiations as you seek to gain commitment on the full agreement, there are strategies to consider. Above all, handle impasse gracefully to avoid deadlock.
Strategies to overcome impasse
The right strategy will depend on the emotions and issues that prompt impasse, and whether you are the actor or on the receiving end: Select a strategy that gets you to your goal in a way that respects the relationship.
- Don't cut off communications, even if this negotiation appears dead. Leave room for additional contact: "In light of the position you have taken… we can't continue negotiations at this time. If you find yourself able to move from that position we would be interested in continuing to talk."
- Conveniently look past what the person said when they declared negotiations over and offer them a way back in that saves face.
- Make an open but very small move of graciousness to the other side and if they reciprocate, make another, until talks are back on.
- Let enough time pass that the parties change their assessment of what kind of an agreement is better than no agreement.
- Avoid single issue negotiations, and keep options open until all issues are resolved so that you can prevent any single issue from creating deadlock.
- Throw something new into the negotiation that recharges bargaining.
- Change the negotiators. Be sure to change both negotiators to save face and preserve the relationship.
- Use a team without authority to bind, to develop resolutions for the lead negotiators to consider.
- Use a neutral third party to facilitate, or resort to a neutral valuation, survey, assessment or appraisal that the parties agree will be binding.
- Strengthen your BATNAs and make them well known to the other side, again, as a warning and not a threat.
Walkouts describe literally that a party has walked out of the room and refuses to re-enter negotiations. A walkout can be a genuine move or a ploy to send a signal to the other side.
Try these strategies if you want bargaining to continue after a walkout:
- Assess the likelihood of finality. Who walked out? A real collaborative negotiator who walks out is very frustrated to exhibit this type of behavior. A schemer is more likely putting on a show.
- Apologize unequivocally for how things got out of control if you are the one who walked out and now wish you hadn't, or even if you are the one who was walked out on.
- Offer to change the people as a last resort, and if you do, change both negotiators to save face and preserve the relationship.
Sometimes no commitment IS better if:
- The other side is interested in an agreement, but only on terms that are beneficial to them (win-lose).
- Circumstances changed or were changed. Unexpected events or those out of the parties' control changed the motivations behind reaching agreement. Changed circumstances can be genuine, or the result of a "bait and switch" tactic.
- The other side never really wanted an agreement to begin with but entered into negotiations for ulterior motives such as stakeholders watching, public relations, to learn their market value, to leverage their own market positioning, etc.
- Ethics of negotiating are viewed very differently by each side. Usually the ethics of compliance will be viewed very differently by each side as well. Get out while you can.