Within negotiation teams, we often hear the statement that “the other party is unreasonable”.

Is this:

  • an unfortunate reality in business negotiations as counterparts often are unreasonable?
  • a statement just-to-let-off-steam while, in the reality, you do understand your counterpart?
  • a good portion of skepticism around the intentions of your counterpart to stay focused on your company’s interests?

As the lead negotiator or the mentor of a negotiation team, how should you react when you, or your team members, say this? In this short article, we will look into the context, reasons and the potential consequences of such statement.

Negotiation context

Unless if part of aggressive negotiation strategies (more on this later), parties are genuinely convinced that THEIR position is reasonable. But … BOTH parties have this conviction … and the positions can still be very far apart.

An example: A Project Owner may be convinced that the Contractor (it carefully selected to build a project) should remain ENTIRELY responsible. And that also when things go fundamentally wrong (i.e. when damages are high compared to the contract amount). But, a Contractor may consider that, while working hard to squeeze a small margin out of a project, it is unreasonable to be exposed to UNLIMITED damages.

By nature, (business) negotiations are situations:

  • where gaps exists between the parties,
  • in which more-for-one is perceived as less-for-the-other,
  • where the positions of your counterpart can be seen as obstacles for your success.

In 95% of cases, don’t say the other party is unreasonable.

As lead negotiator or mentor overseeing a negotiation team, you shouldn’t make statements about the unreasonableness of your counterpart. Nor should you let other team members make such statements without reacting.

The consequences of (incorrectly) considering your counterpart as unreasonable are very big:

  • It stimulates your team to go for defensive strategies or, worse, to make unreasonable counter-proposals.
  • You may say – or show – to your counterpart that you believe they are unreasonable. Your counterpart may perceive this as insulting.
  • It decelerates the negotiation process as parties usually wait for their counterpart to become reasonable before making constructive proposals.

And, the above reactions will undermine trust, probably for both parties. And trust is essential to bridge the gap and achieve win-win outcomes.

What to do instead?

When a negotiation team feels that their counterpart’s positions are unreasonable, this situation should immediately trigger a thought process or a brainstorming session:

  • What would you think, or defend, if you were in their position?
  • Under what circumstances would their position actually be reasonable? This may open your eyes to real constraints of your counterpart.
  • Did your side present a position that your counterpart may see as unreasonable? Maybe this has triggered their unreasonable stance?
  • What are their interests?
  • What options do you have not to insist on this gap and to rather follow an alternative route towards a solution?
  • Your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)? What is your walk-away position? And how does their so-called unreasonable position compare to your BATNA/walk-away position? This will help you measure the degree of unreasonableness.
  • What could be their BATNA? Does it justify, in any way, their position?

Collecting the answers on above questions will largely improve your understanding of the situation. Hey… your counterpart may not be so unreasonable after all… Roughly in 95% of cases, that could be your conclusion.

In 5% of cases, do acknowledge the other party is unreasonable.

Earlier, we referred to aggressive negotiation strategies. These can be any of the following:

  • “Good cop / bad cop” strategies where the “bad cop” deliberately made the choice to be unreasonable.
  • “Extreme anchoring” where your counterpart’s initial offer is unreasonable, on purpose, to prepare you to accept a bad deal.
  • “Excessive leverage” by one party, holding very strong cards and exploiting them to the maximum.
The other party is unreasonable in a negotiation

Good negotiation guru’s will not recommend anyone to use above strategies. Furthermore, they will train negotiators to handle the relevant 5% of cases with strategic questioning, tactical empathy, pivoting to interest-based negotiations and, if no other solution is available, leaving the negotiation table.

Conclusions

Wait a minute! Each of us has probably said, once in a while (or even more frequently)”the other party is unreasonable”. So, let’s not go defensive. Let’s not start arguing that this is the right thing to do! Rather, what are our take-away’s in case someone perceives a negotiation counterpart as unreasonable ?

  • Make it your habit NOT to SAY your counterpart is unreasonable.
  • RECOGNIZE the 5% of cases where your counterpart is indeed unreasonable. And handle this with appropriate negotiation techniques.
  • Don’t let your negotiation-team-members make that statement. When they do, start a BRAINSTORMING within the team to look for the underlying reasons and possible solutions.

Do you believe the above recommendations are the right thing to do?

  • If yes, please let us know.
  • If not, share your point of view in a comment below.

About AfiTaC

AfiTaC.com is the blog on commercial and contractual subjects for the Project Businesses (Construction, Infrastructure, Oil & Gas, Power & Renewable, Water Supply & Sanitation, etc). Its objective is to stimulate reflection, learning, convergence to balanced contracts and positive dispute resolution. You can subscribe to our newsletter by writing to “newsletter@afitac.com”. You can also connect to our LinkedIn page. Engagement with the readers is what keeps us going. So, don’t hesitate to exchange with us by commenting here below, liking our publication on LinkedIn and writing to us “info@afitac.com”. 

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