Skip to main content

8 steps to negotiating a deal

By Michael E. Dickstein, Special to CNN
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Sun October 13, 2013
Speaker of the House John Boehner walks from the House floor following a vote October 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Speaker of the House John Boehner walks from the House floor following a vote October 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Dickstein: Washington should take note -- negotiation shouldn't be a game of chicken
  • He says to get a deal the idea is not to blame others but to get out of a problem
  • He says keep an eye on the goal and remember insults and anger can backfire on the process
  • Dickstein: Negotiation isn't about meeting in middle, it's about maximizing parties' takeaway

Editor's note: Michael E. Dickstein mediates complex disputes across North America with Dickstein Dispute Resolution, teaches negotiation at Stanford Law School, and has taught negotiation to governmental, judicial, corporate, academic, professional and other audiences around the world.

(CNN) -- The problem with seeing negotiation as a game of chicken is that sometimes you get what you want, but most of the time everyone just gets plucked. That is what I tell my mediation clients, when they take more and more extreme positions, and insist everyone else needs to back down.

That is what I tell my negotiation students when they give blustering ultimatums and ignore what the other side wants. And that is what I wish someone would tell the parties in Washington battling over the budget and a looming default.

So, what do you do when you realize you're in a negotiation where everyone will be worse off if no one finds a path out?

Consider the following:

Michael E. Dickstein
Michael E. Dickstein

1) The immediate problem is not how you got here, it is how you are going to get out.

There will be plenty of time later to learn and teach lessons. Right now you need to find a path to a better outcome. Accusations, dissections of past mistakes and allocations of blame will only make it harder to get there.

2) There is no "they" on the other side.

Parties in negotiation tend to say, "They are unreasonable," "They are negotiating in bad faith," or "They are crazy!" Of course, in the current congressional struggle, pundits and politicians are saying far worse (such as "They are anarchists" and "They are fascists."). But thinking of the other party as "they" empowers the most extreme people on the other side. Instead you need to figure out who is most sympathetic to your position and who is least. And you need to negotiate in a way that empowers those most sympathetic and marginalizes the rest. When a party's position is extreme, responding in an extreme way only unifies the other side's moderates with their extremists.

3) Don't just throw the steering wheel out the window.

I recently heard a "negotiation expert" on the radio. He said that when you are in a game of negotiation chicken, you should throw your steering wheel out the window and then tell the other side that you can't turn. But what happens when both sides follow his advice? There is a reason you don't see many real games of chicken. And there is a reason that no one actually throws the steering wheel out the window if he or she does play chicken. Those people don't live very long.

4) Keep your eye on your goal and don't get lost in the negotiation game.

Strategizing, positioning and winning the negotiation game is exhilarating. But don't get so caught up in the maneuvering that you lose sight of your goals. When Congress agreed that it would give back pay to furloughed employees but not return them to work, everyone lost sight of the goal. Is there someone in the political spectrum who thinks we need to spend just as much money but get nothing for it?

Markets frustrated by shutdown woes
Obama, Boehner spar over shutdown
Families of fallen troops suffer

5) Negotiation is not about always meeting in the middle

If negotiations always met in the middle, that would just encourage everyone to take extreme initial positions. Meeting in the middle only makes sense if you are meeting between two reasonable positions. So, an effective negotiator searches for the possible area of overlap between the parties and then tries to maximize the value the negotiator takes away. An ineffective negotiator looks only at what he or she wants and then views negotiation as inflating the negotiator's demands in order to meet back in the middle.

6) Fear can be good. Anger is bad.

Too many negotiators focus entirely on trying to scare the other party into making a deal. Not enough negotiators realize they also need to give the other party hope that a deal is possible, and that the deal would be better than walking away. And far too many negotiators push the other side beyond fear to anger. Making others in a negotiation angry just makes it harder to get the deal you want. Why would you ever want to anger the person who has to say "yes" for you to have a deal?

7) Insulting the other parties is just throwing away your negotiating capital.

If members of the other side feel insulted, they will get angry, and it will be harder to get them to say "yes" to anything. And the biggest problem is that it won't matter if you intended to insult them. So, when your worldview is very different from another party's view, be careful that what seems obvious to you is not perceived as insulting by the other party.

8) Playing chicken is for people who love risk, don't value relationships and don't mind losing deals.

If you find yourself playing negotiation chicken, make sure you have something to do if you crash. And figure out if the other side is actually prepared to crash. Chicken is for people who like the thrill of winning. Chicken is for people who value getting a marginal advantage in some deals, at the cost of losing other deals entirely. And chicken is for gamblers. Are you one of those kind of people? And, if you are a lawyer, negotiator or member of Congress, are the people you represent those kind of people? Because if they are not, they are likely to be very angry if you crash. And I have already mentioned that anger is bad for negotiators.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael E. Dickstein.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT