What You'll Learn
  • A surprise attack raises a previously undisclosed issue for the purpose of catching the other side unprepared
  • Don't use the surprise attack in collaborative negotiations
  • Ambush is a surprise attack that involves bringing many more people than expected to the bargaining table
  • Defend against the surprise attack by building trust and sticking to an agenda

Recognize the Surprise Attack

Raising a previously undisclosed issue for the purpose of catching the other side unprepared and gaining an advantage in bargaining.

The surprise attack is one of the oldest of all negotiating tactics. It was written about in Sun Tzu's classic The Art of Strategy. Sun Tzu's teachings have retained relevance through more than twenty-three centuries, guiding warriors and business professionals alike to achieve triumph over opposition. A slight nuance to the surprise attack is the Ambush, where a party arrives at bargaining with many more people than were expected.

Expect this tactic to be used as part of one of these Negotiation Strategies (competitive, collaborative, avoidance, accommodation, compromise) and in these stages of the Negotiation Process (Preparation, Exchange, Bargain, Conclude, Execution).

Negotiation Strategy: Competitive
Negotiation Stages: Bargain and Conclude

Don't Use the Surprise Attack in Collaborative Negotiations

You want the other side to come to bargaining with the right people, information and the authority to discuss creative solutions that are mutually beneficial. Why do it differently? To conduct a surprise attack or an Ambush will be seen as confrontational and the beginning of the deterioration of negotiations. Any other cooperative or collaborative things you do in negotiations will at best be received with suspicion or marginalized.

Defend Against Surprise Attack

There are preventive and defensive measures to handle a surprise attack.


There are no shortcuts to being prepared or building a relationship based on trust. Following these BNPs will minimize any risk of a surprise attack.


For reinforcement rely on BNP 11: Develop a joint agenda. If something comes up that you didn't discuss when you negotiated the agenda, remind the other side that their new item is not on the agenda both parties agreed to and will have to wait for the next session.

  • Resist the temptation to discuss the new item. Even if you are a quick thinker and "good on your feet", you won't do as well as if you were prepared on the issue. Responding without preparing is exactly what the other side wants you to do; catching you unprepared, without information or analysis, is the reason that the other side conducted the surprise attack in the first place.

If You Like This Content, You’ll Love Our Training Workshops

We provide in-person and virtual training workshops to companies, government agencies, universities, and other organizations. The content of this Learning Center is a small sample of what we deliver to your teams during our live interactive classes.

To learn more, send us a note and we will be in touch soon!