Business Sales Negotiation January 8, 2015

Advanced Negotiation Skills (4): Dealing with Deadlock


Deadlock is many negotiators’ worst nightmare. It happens where there may well be a deal to be done but neither side seems willing to move towards the other in order to bridge their differences. If you are not used to this, it can be psychologically very uncomfortable.

In fact, creating deadlock on purpose is a key part of the armoury of hard-ball negotiators. They do it to make sure they have drained every last drop of advantage for themselves before agreeing any deal.  And, because they do this habitually, they are often very good at it. For them, there is no apparent concern at all about being stuck in impasse. They are only waiting for you to blink first.


In the last article in this series, on the importance of signalling in a negotiation, we confirmed that if you seem too willing to do a deal, you are almost certainly going to be taken advantage of. Your positon will inevitably be seen as one of weakness.

However, if you are too keen to show-off your negotiating power, you may either frighten away the other side before you ever reach a negotiation - and lose what could have been a good deal; or you will encourage them to come out with all guns blazing, ‘to get their retaliation in first’.

This style of negotiating can be wearying, time-consuming and frustrating. It can indeed produce really bad deals for both sides, or even no deal at all. But, it can also produce spectacularly good results – at least, for one side. 

So how to defend against this?

Ten Tips

  1. Decide how badly you want this deal

    It may not be worth fighting over. 

    Or, it may be well worth threatening to walk out unless they move towards your needs.  This is often a great tactic, but you must walk out if they are intransigent.  (And it is usually smart to leave both parties negotiating space to walk back in, too!)

  2. Remember your ‘Must Haves’!

    In the first two articles in this series, we stressed the importance of separating your ‘Must Haves’ from your ‘Would Likes’, at the outset. 

    This is especially relevant during deadlock. If your ‘Must Haves’ really were just that, don’t let the other side persuade you otherwise!

  3. Keep ‘the whole package’ in mind

    Deadlock can, nevertheless, arise from quite trivial disagreement.

    When this happens, both sides may need reminding what their core objectives really were.  (Including yours?)

  4. Reward only their ‘good behaviour’

    This means not collapsing when they put extra pressure on you.  That would be to reward bad behaviour!

    Note: negotiation is about both sides trading concessions; not just one side donating them.  So make it your Golden Rule: never give something for nothing.  And encourage them to make counter-proposals, rather than just saying ‘No’.

  5. Don’t ignore their signals

    This can only prolong argument. (See the third article in this series).

    So explore their signals, rather than reject their position outright, and consider making conditional proposals. ( Eg: “If you will…, we could consider…”)

  6. Agree a change

    Change the topic, agenda, venue, team, timescale, or anything else within reason. 
    It can be remarkably refreshing!

  7. Agree a deadline

    This is often how international diplomacy works. 
    It also works especially well in more commercial negotiations!

  8. Agree a recess

    This is one of the most powerful tools possible when deadlock looms. And unlike many may think, it need not be a sign of weakness. 

    Quite the opposite in fact.  It can be a great opportunity to make the other side reconsider their position too.

  9. Will you need to ‘fight fire with fire’?

    Hard-ballers are often bullies, and bullies hate weakness in others.  (That is often why they are bullies.) 

    But note: if you want a fight, there will be no place for fine feelings, and you will need to start as you mean to continue.

  10. Stay calm

    Some negotiators enjoy conflict and actively seek to destabilise the other side emotionally.  Don’t let them!

    Stay cool, calm and firm, and don’t play their games of insult, threat or provocation.

Important Lessons

You can’t make another side negotiate a ‘win-win’ deal.  And although deadlock may be created intentionally to achieve a ‘win-lose’ deal (great for one side, awful for the other), it can easily result in either no deal at all, or even a mutually-bad ‘lose-lose’ outcome. 

If this is your natural negotiating style, you will probably be very good at it!  But while you may win some exceptionally good deals, you may also lose many more.  If this isn’t your preferred style however, you are only at a disadvantage if you are taken by surprise and don’t know how to deal with it. 

Far better for all styles of negotiating in fact, and especially for critical longer-term and repeat deals, is to learn how to deal with deadlock professionally and to resist the inevitable psychological pressures that you (or your team) may well not be accustomed to.

The essence of this is to be fully prepared, and one of the best ways is to role-play all possible scenarios with your team beforehand.  Not only will you then understand the other side’s real position far better, as opposed to their rhetoric, you will also find out how best you might respond to all possibilities - and even which members of your team may be the most appropriate to field.

Amongst many other considerations, we will look at building a power-base (real, or just perceived?) and team selection in subsequent articles.

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