Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without Money or Muscle)

BIZBOOKS AND BEYONDI’VE READ OTHER books explaining and driving tactics of negotiation, but this book is unlike any other on the topic. I could tell at the outset that this book was going to be different. For one thing, as I flipped through the pages I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of examples Deepak Malhotra used to teach readers the strategy of negotiation. From the football field to the battlefield (and no, they are not the same thing), the author pulled from both history and modern day to bring focus to the way negotiations emerge and transpire.

emotionheaderThe author describes three levers negotiators will find to be powerful tools:

                  The Power of Framing
                  The Power of Process
                  The Power of Empathy

I know that it’s considered bad practice to write spoilers into the content of a book summary but I’m hoping that applies to novels and not books such as this one. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how magnetic past history could be. Each chapter, as you will see, tells a story of how a negotiation rendered results that wrote history in a certain way. It makes me wonder how things would have been different had these tactics failed. But they didn’t so let’s get to work and discover a few key points in these historical strategic negotiations.

The Power of Framing – Told through events, or maybe nightmares, of both NFL and NHL contract negotiations. Players and owners have been deadlocked a few times in past years. Malhotra discussed framing which is a psychological lens through which all parties are able to perceive each other. It’s viewing perspectives from different vantage points.

Takeaway from this chapter: Control the frame of the negotiation. Make it easier for the other party to back down.

Leveraging the Power of Framing – Negotiating royalty rates on licensed products need not reach a permanent stalemate. It could be in the optics of the deal – how it looks. In this case, what you are proposing and how you are proposing it doesn’t look right to the other party. Spread things out a bit and include multiple issues. Reframe your proposal.

Takeaway from this chapter. It helps to be others focused. Think of ways to make the other party want to say yes. Negotiate multiple issues simultaneously.

The Logic of Appropriateness – Convincing cancer patients to take recommended ‘active surveillance’ treatments over radiation and surgery. This is the example used to make the key point of this chapter, but the overall goal throughout is how to help doctors learn to effectively communicate recommended treatment options with their patients. People make choices by any number of logical or emotional ways. It’s often a multi-step process. In the end, the decision will likely be made on how convinced the other party is that what they are doing is appropriate for them. Your offer might hang in the balance while the person evaluates whether the proposal is balanced or one-sided, generous or unfair, comforting or anxiety provoking.

Takeaway from this chapter. For successful negotiation, the other party must perceive your offer as appropriate.

Strategic Ambiguity – Negotiating into existence the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) of 1968. What started out in 1968 with five countries, by the turn-of-the-century 190 countries had signed the NPT. In a few short pages we learn about the difficult process and vexing problems that arose during many negotiations through the years. As the chapter title suggests strategic ambiguity is a lack of precision and that is by design. “Strategic ambiguity is a risky tactic that can pay dividends when used at the appropriate time in the appropriate way.” As a tech writer for most of my career, seeing strategic ambiguity used as almost one word seemed like a paradox. The word precise was at the top of all our program requirements. In this book the author talks about strategic ambiguity being used in serious negotiations for preventing countries from testing nuclear weapons.

Takeaway from this chapter. “Strategic ambiguity should be used only when other mechanisms are in place to ensure compliance with appropriate behavior.”

The Limits of Framing – Charting a path to war with Iraq. The year was 2002 and it was assumed that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. We all know the stories but we don’t know all the steps to negotiation that were brought into the process to assure that the appropriate use of force was applied if, and when security demanded it. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of that period in history intense negotiations were going on. The parties opted to use a strategically ambiguous solution.

Takeaway from this chapter. “Strategic ambiguity involves a trade-off between minimizing current conflict and minimizing future conflict.” Strategic ambiguity should not be your first choice if you are trying to prevent future disputes. To avoid multiple interpretations of the deal, be as explicit and unambiguous as possible.

First Mover Advantage – Maybe you can name this country but I couldn’t. What country has the longest standing treaty in United States history? Time’s up! The country is Morocco and the treaty is the Treaty of Friendship of 1777. First mover advantage applies to framing which considers such things as “who is perceived as strong or weak, whether it makes sense to be transparent or to be guarded, in which reference points are precedents are appropriate when evaluating offers, valuations, and so on.” Those streams have an influence on negotiations as they unfold. That Treaty of Friendship was to be extended for 50 years and it persists to today.

Takeaway from this chapter. Seek to control the frame negotiation at the start. Reframe as soon as possible if the existing frame becomes a different vantage

The Power of Process – Negotiating the U.S. Constitution. This is probably my favorite chapter in the book because I learned about some of the people from our past and what kind of character they had. For example, James Madison had a very quiet voice and was small in stature, but he was also one of the most influential men of those who drafted the Constitution. The point of this chapter was to show how important it is to have a process strategy. One of my former managers didn’t have this book, but he told me nearly these exact words. “Be the most prepared person in the room. Know the facts, anticipate arguments and understand where your weaknesses are.”

Takeaway from this chapter. Be prepared, design a process, start early, do your research, start with a draft and don’t ignore the implementation process.

Leveraging the Power of Process – The story of fledgling Sun Microsystems’ appeal for $10 Million. The co-founders had all but signed a deal with an investor when the CEO of the investing firm asked for another meeting, this time with a number of executives. The deal was almost killed, but not quite. The co-founders of Sun considered making concessions but held back, and it worked to their advantage. Some points learned in this chapter are negotiate process before substance, seek clarity, get commitment, and normalize the process. In negotiations, conflict – serious conflict is normal.

Takeaway from this chapter. This chapter is rich in takeaways but here are my top two. Normalize the process. If parties know what to expect, they are likely to overreact to doubt, delays, and disruptions. Even if you cannot influence the process, seek to get as much clarity and commitment as possible.

Preserve Forward Momentum – Strikes and lockouts in the NHL. It was eye-opening to learn that it’s been 20 years since NHL owners and players have succeeded in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement without a strike or a lockout that caused serious economic damage. The National Hockey League and their players need to learn negotiation skills. There are protracted conflicts where solutions take a long time to come about, and there are some relationships where parties will have to negotiate with each other again in the future. In these instances it’s necessary to preserve forward momentum which means deliberately and gradually eliminating obstacles in creating conditions that could lead to a successful outcome.

Takeaway from this chapter. Preserve forward momentum. Instead of using tactics to gain an advantage, consider how this could affect your ability to have positive negotiations in the future. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Stay at the Table – The first world war was before my time but I remember it was called “the war to end all wars”. Of course that didn’t happen and there are many flaws in the peace agreements that followed. I wonder how things would be different one century later had negotiations gone differently. I like the ideas the author shared here of not giving up, but staying informed and invest in continuous negotiation even when there is no specific current conflict.

Takeaway from this chapter. Stay at the table, especially after failed negotiations, to sustain relationships, understand the other side’s perspective, and look for opportunities to reengage. Channel processes to manage subsequent flare-ups and blatant conflict.

The Limits of Process – Trying to end the Vietnam War. Did you know the Vietnam War spanned 1955 to 1975? I didn’t. Even though that war has been over for many years arguments still persist about whether legitimate US national interests were at stake. Talks about the war itself produce conflicts. After six pages of revelation about the war the author tells us “parties in a dispute might never get to the point where they discuss potential solutions if they can’t decide who will make the initial settlement offer.” More relevant to a business might be the fact that one party is ready to make a decision while the other party is still shopping around. Sometimes you have to leave the process behind and sometimes you have to stand firm on process

Takeaway from this chapter. If you want to stand firm on process it is best to demonstrate that you seek equality, not advantage, acknowledge and address substantive concerns that are linked to process choices, and negotiate substance in parallel with process.

Changing the Rules of Engagement – Negotiating with your friends, and I do mean Friends, as in the TV Sitcom. This was the chapter that spoke volumes about how amenable negotiations can be when people who care about each other stick together. When the show first aired, the six main characters were paid varying salaries, but in the third season that changed and from then on each of the six actors were paid equally. How did this equity come about? It was all through negotiation and the cast sticking together. It netted them each $1 million per episode in their final season, and the years leading up to that weren’t too shabby either.

Takeaway from this chapter. Early-stage interactions can provide a relatively low cost opportunity to shape the terms of future engagement. Your willingness to incur upfront costs in support of the process sends a credible signal of your commitment to it.

The Power of Empathy – Negotiating the Cuban missile crisis. This chapter goes into the full story behind the whole Cuban missile crisis and discusses the interactions between US Pres. John F. Kennedy, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Executive Committee of the President, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, plus commanders, executives, and advisors. One section of the chapter is titled Negotiating the Impossible and I’m sure that’s about how it felt. I can’t go into all the details after all this is supposed to be just a summary, but I really appreciated the story about Robert Kennedy’s impression of the empathy JFK showed to his executive committee during one point of the negotiations. One quote from the chapter: A successful end to this crisis would be unimaginable if not for Pres. Kennedy’s ability and willingness to consider the conflict from Khrushchev’s point of view.

Takeaway from this chapter. In negotiations, the greater your capacity for empathy – the more carefully you try to understand all the other party’s motivations, interests, and constraints – the more options you tend to have for potentially resolving the dispute or deadlock.

Leveraging the Power of Empathy – Deal making with a gun to your head. I know. That sounds desperate, but in this story from real life, Deepak Malhotra felt like the party in his client’s negotiation was doing just that. In business developments all parts of the process being evaluated (measured) were above expectations, except one. That one exception became a sticking point of the project. Confused why that one milestone should be a deal breaker the team investigated probable cause. In the end they learned that it wasn’t the milestone at all, but was rather a problem on the side of the other party.

Takeaway from this chapter. Explore all potential explanations for the other side’s behavior. Do not assume incompetence or ill intent.

Yielding – Selling modernity in Saudi Arabia. Love the story here of bringing ‘technology’ to a country where technology was considered the devil’s tools. In 1925, King Ibn Saud wanted to bring telegraph and telephony to Saudi Arabia. In 1949 he wanted radio stations. By 1965 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia wanted to introduce Television and along with it financial and social reforms. In all cases, highly influential religious minded individuals were staunchly against it. It was quite a feat to get them to accept that technology was not a direct campaign of Satan. The way both kings changed the minds of the powerful cynics was classic!

Takeaway from this chapter. Sometimes the best response to a deep-rooted perspective is to yield to it: understand it, adopt it, and repurpose it to advance your position.

Map Out the Negotiation Space – Negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. I knew that Louisiana Territory was purchased for four cents an acre and that the United States doubled in size. But didn’t know that it was promised to be returned to Spain if France ever decided they didn’t want it. I forgot that part and I didn’t know anything about the negotiations either. I probably wasn’t paying close attention in 10th grade. There is an excellent narration of the story here in this chapter with excerpts from letters of both President Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. This is recounted as the greatest land deal in history even though both authority to buy and authority to sell were in question.

Takeaway from this chapter. Think trilaterally: Evaluate how third parties influence or alter the interests, constraints, and alternatives of those at the table. Consider all parties in the areas of interests, constraints, alternatives, and perspective.

Partners Not Opponents – Caught in the crossfire. I could feel every muscle in my body tense up as I read the story of a young manufacturer who found himself in a legal battle over a patent. This young man was sued and after $400,000 in legal fees was still on the hook for $2 Million. Instead of seeing the company that sued him as the enemy, he reframed his mindset to see them as a partner he could learn from and negotiated a win/win/win partnership for himself and the manufacturer and the retailer.

Takeaway from this chapter. See the other side as your partner, not your opponent, regardless of the type or degree of conflict. Start by asking: What would be the value maximizing outcome? Are there ways to create value?

Compare the Maps – Lessons in cartography and linguistics was more than a chapter on map reading. It talked about how the world is getting flatter and more connected and how prolific conflicts are due to social construction. This is especially evident of late when we are no longer allowed to disagree peacefully when someone’s ideas differ significantly from ours. I have often asked the question, When did, “I disagree with you” become another way of saying “I hate you”? It seems that conflicts are on the rise while peace erodes, even among smaller people groups. As the author says in his conclusion of this more personally applicable chapter, “Neither caution nor courage alone provides sound basis for human interaction. Both are needed. Engagement does not guarantee success in the short run, but a failure to engage almost always prolongs and worsens conflict.”

Takeaway from this chapter. Asking people to forget the past is futile, but it is sometimes possible to help them find more value creating ways to apply the lessons of the past. Never let fear dictate your response to the problems of human interaction.

The path forward – Negotiation does not make the world a better place. It doesn’t change people you encounter to be nicer, wiser, more sophisticated, or more ethical. Learning to negotiate equips you for dealing with people in nicer, wiser, more sophisticated, and ethical ways.

Whether you are involved in sports, education, business, politics, or navigating an unfamiliar career path, this  book is going to set you up for successful negotiations with the background, the methods, and the tools to get what you want out of your next deal.

This is my favorite quote from one of the chapters: Ask people to imagine a world in which the seemingly impossible actually happens. Then ask them to paint you a picture of what that world looks like.


Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
JANE’s professional experience is scattered across industries from financial services and insurance to engineering and manufacturing. Jane sees her background in writing and editing website content as the foundation to her current love of social media. Being an avid reader, meticulous note taker and lifelong learner has fostered her natural pursuit of sharing her world through writing. Reading books and summarizing content started as a hobby and has since grown to be a major part of her vocational experience. Jane says, “Authors pour their heart and soul into writing their book. When I write a review, it’s with intent to celebrate the book and promote the author.” Jane claims to be 'the best follower you'll ever want to meet' and has been repeatedly called servant leader, eternal cheerleader, social media evangelist, and inspirational go-to person. Jane is a contributing author to the inspiring book Chaos to Clarity: Sacred Stories of Transformational Change.

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