7 negotiation tactics you don’t see in the movies

You’re more likely to get a successful outcome if you follow these tips


“Never say no to a hostage-taker! It’s in the manual. Are you gonna tell me ‘no’ again? Never use ‘no’, ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’ or ‘can’t’. It eliminates options. The only option left is to shoot someone.”
Danny Ronan (Samuel L Jackson), The Negotiator

Tense, highly-charged encounters between powerful figures, with a huge amount at stake and a clear winner and loser at the end. That’s what negotiations look like in the movies. Now banish those scenes from your mind. In today’s complex business world, you’re advised to follow these well-researched pointers to achieve the outcomes you want, more of the time.

1. Don’t play hardball

Be careful with the use of threats and hardball tactics. Forget what you think you know about negotiations. Those things might work in very simple negotiations – if you go to the flea market or you buy your secondhand car, these tactics sometimes help. But whenever it becomes more complex, they easily backfire. In movies you often see negotiators who use a lot of authority. That’s a powerful tool of influencing others but it does not promote creative thinking. You need your opponent to think creatively with you to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Working on the basis of authority can hinder that creativity.

2. Make the first offer

Your instinct may be to hold back and get as much information as you can before making an offer. But making the first offer is extremely powerful. It builds on one of the strongest influences on human judgement, the anchoring effect. Once we have a number in our mind, our judgements are automatically assimilated towards that number. The anchor influences everything else. The initial offer influences the counter-offer and thus pulls the entire space in which the negotiation takes place towards it. In our research, we manipulated whether the buyer or seller in a simple negotiation made the first offer. What we found was that the first offer advantage was so strong that in some cases, the least skilled negotiator in the group that was allowed to make the first offer still obtained a better outcome than the most skilled negotiator in the group that wasn’t allowed to make the first offer.

There are only a few exceptions to this rule, most importantly situations where the relationship is more important than the outcome (for example, if you’re negotiating with your spouse).

3. Appeal to the emotions

You want the information that is talked about to be information that relates to your first offer. Typically there’s too much information to process all at once. The human mind bases its decisions and judgements on the information that is accessible and available. So the more you can make certain information emotionally relevant, the stronger weight it carries. Inexperienced negotiators think it’s about the numbers, but what influences decisions more in many cases is information described in a vivid way. For example, in a trade union negotiation about pay cuts and pay increases, you could just talk about the percentages or you could also describe what that means for the lives of the families involved. Make it resonate: what do the numbers mean? As an illustration, when you’re selling a car, you could focus on how many miles to the gallon it does or how smoothly it runs, what great trips you’ve had, how the car has been another member of the family and so on.

4. Do your homework

The most important thing in any negotiation is to prepare well for it. Negotiators are often too ego-centric in their preparations. They only think about their own position and their own interests, they do not try to take the perspective of the other party. Try and picture what potential alternatives the other side has. Typically in negotiations there is a way, if you prepare well and invest some time, to get that information. It’s usually available if you put in some effort. Often negotiators naively turn to deception and misleading information, essentially lying to cover up for a lack of preparation. If you really are well-prepared you typically do not have to misrepresent facts. If you’re not and you’re called out and you don’t know what to say… that’s often when people lie.

5. Look for ways to grow the pie

Naïve negotiators often view negotiations as a competition – a fight with the other side. In fact, the more complex the negotiations become, the more it is productive to see it as a joint problem-solving task. You need the other person to work with you, not to merely split a fixed pie that is given but to grow that pie in the first place. Complex negotiations involve a multitude of different dimensions that will not be equally valuable to both sides. Let’s take the example of a job negotiation: it may be that the salary is more important to the applicant than to the organisation, which is in a good place financially but wants you to travel more or be based in the office five days a week. Or it could be the opposite – maybe the salary is not that important to you but working from home twice a week is. It’s important to find out what the weights are on either side of the scale so you can engage in an open, problem-solving conversation. The objective still is to maximise your own outcomes but that is easier if the pie has grown.

6. Be authentic

On those occasions when negotiation is very obviously a competition, present yourself as very confident and make sure your offer is something you really believe in. It has to feel realistic. It’s important to create an atmosphere of trust in which information can be shared. To achieve that, it’s helpful to reveal some information yourself first, as a trust-building mechanism. We’re guided by the law of reciprocity in our social exchanges. Once you have given a little bit of information you are much more likely to be paid back, if you’ve created an environment in which information about preferences and interests can be revealed.

7. Know when to walk way

Sometimes no outcome is the best outcome. It’s not just about finding agreement. Never go into a negotiation without a good BATNA – a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. This gives you the power to say no. It’s your plan B. It’s not only negotiating one job, not only looking at one car, not only falling in love with one flat. It’s looking more broadly at your alternatives. It’s something that negotiators often have a hard time accepting but sometimes it really is better for both sides to say, sorry, I still like and respect you but it seems that I have better alternatives and you have better alternatives as well.

Comments (3)

old_stogey 5 years, 10 months and 7 days ago

1 and 2 seem a bit contradictory. If you are going to make an opening offer to leverage the anchoring effect, that can be a bit of a hardball tactic. However, it is true that someone has to make the opening. I would actually consider appealing to emotions to be a bit more hardball. Pulling guilt trips is a distraction. If you are doing it to untangle the issue and strip away distractions, fine. But, if you are leveraging emotions to push people into a corner (as the example given seems to), that seems more hardball. Also, getting at emotions happens quite often in movie negotiations. Intimidation is a form of using emotions.

ccdamo 5 years, 10 months and 8 days ago

A really good list, thank you Thomas. And thanks for sharing your experience, David. I agree with you both about how powerful research is. Nothing complex, but just a week ago I was in a car with a senior sales person looking at houses. I can probably count at least 10 times the person gave out false information (in short, lied) while talking me into a deal. What he obviously did not realize, it was not my first viewing that week. While the person did try to appeal to the emotions (a tad too much, though), his playing hardball, not doing the homework, and not being authentic were all factors that led to ’no deal’. And, one more important thing he missed ~ not listening carefully.

drotor 5 years, 10 months and 8 days ago

Thomas, that's a good sensible list of negotiating tips. I've been responsible for several billions of dollars of negotiations over dozens if not hundreds of large deals. I'd suggest adding a bit more explicit language around doing external research. It could fit with walking away, doing your homework, or even anchoring. The tip is to really understand the value of what you are seeking to trade. I recently trained 600 big audit firm partners on negotiations. As a fun ice-breaker, they negotiated the price of used car in pairs. The car was a 1997 Estate Wagon. One side wanted to sell for $12,000 the other to buy for $8000. With 600 partners, not one thought to check the street value of a 1997 Estate Wagon - about $1500. I stop them after 15 minutes or so, and they are excited to learn if they won or lost the little game. I show a used car ad, $1500, and then chat about the value of externally validating the value of the deal. Once I dodge the rotten tomatoes, the rest of the course is a breeze! It's a bit cute to present that way, but I've lost track of the times building a really robust "should cost" model makes the biggest difference to a negotiation strategy. Cheers, David Rotor IEMP96