04 Mar 2004

From high velocity to reciprocity: From stalemate to good mate

By Michael Klug

The world does not start afresh each morning: each day we deal with people we have met before and will meet again.[2] These ongoing relationships are vital to providing us with what we need and want. A good relationship satisfies those needs and wants. In a good relationship we think of ourselves as an 'us' or 'we'. But when things turn sour, we can find ourselves in an adversarial relationship. Instead of 'us', we think of 'them' and 'the other side'.[3]

So how do we move from stalemate, to good mate? In a high velocity situation, fraught with tension and resistance, we must apply the brakes, and return to reciprocity. But firstly, we must be able to identify the two enemies of a negotiated outcome: uncontrolled escalation and impasse, and take evasive action.


Collaboration is required to reach a good agreement. But many people have difficulty with the psychological aspect of working collaboratively.[4] We sometimes act against our own best interests due to our emotions overwhelming our logic.[5] Acting on the irrational can lead to an uncontrolled escalation, which inexorably leads to an undesired outcome.

Susskind and Cruikshank use an experiment to illustrate how an uncontrolled escalation can produce adverse outcomes. They call it the Dollar Bill Auction.[6] The 'auctioneer' holds a dollar note up for auction to the highest bidder. There are four rules: firstly, bidding is in ten cent increments. Secondly, while the highest bidder will win the dollar, the second-highest bidder must pay the auctioneer the amount of their losing bid. Thirdly, the bidders are not allowed to communicate with one another. Fourthly, the auction is over when a minute passes without a new bid being made.

Susskind and Cruikshank report that the progress of the auction is predictable. There are many bids in the early stages, as the bidders find the opportunity to get a dollar for ten or twenty cents difficult to resist. However, when the bids begin to reach forty and fifty cents, the bidders become increasingly reluctant to give up forty cents for nothing if they turn out to be the second highest bidder.

The auctioneer can fuel the escalation by asking the second-highest bidder "Are you really willing to let that person get this dollar for forty cents, and also pay me thirty cents?" This statement changes the stakes. The bidders not only have an investment in winning, but they also have a stake in not losing. The dollar bargain is no longer a bargain. According to Susskind and Cruikshank, when the bids exceed a dollar; which they almost always do, there are no longer any prospective winners. The game becomes about minimising losses. The dollar can sometimes go for as much as six dollars, depending on how much the bidders want to avoid losing. They have invested too much to quit.

The bidders have let their irrational emotion - the fear of losing - dictate their bids. They have succumbed to a psychological struggle and let themselves become caught up in a pattern of escalation. They have become that anti-hero of negotiation: the distributive bargainer. The distributive bargainer is the person who thinks more for me is less for you. The worse you feel, the better the distributive bargainer feels. The distributive bargainer overlooks the need to create value, and focuses on the lose/lose mechanism of distributive value.

One of the major tests in the business world and indeed in life is to know how to balance the necessary need to be distributive, for example when purchasing from a supplier, as against the long term need to build relationships through integrative and collaborative interest based bargaining.


An impasse is negotiation paralysis. Paradoxically, the impasse and uncontrolled escalation, whilst apparently diametrically opposed, are non-identical twins. The impasse is very often the direct result of disengagement after a period of uncontrolled escalation, for example after a domestic flare up, or something as serious as the Cold War. Both parties are locked: neither willing to budge an inch.

Impasses can occur on the domestic front, with daily impasses between household members. The bathroom won't be cleaned unless the rubbish is taken out but the rubbish won't be taken out until an apology is given for a sharply spoken word. But the sharply spoken word was deserved. The result: an impasse. Needless to say, impasses are easily reached in commercial negotiations. Both parties believe that they have given enough, and won't give more until the other party has.

An impasse can cause the parties to leave the negotiating table without a negotiated agreement: a lose/lose situation if both parties were serious about the negotiation.[7] A fear of impasse can cause the inexperienced negotiator to give away concessions instead of trading them.[8] An impasse can also lead to one party conceding to a win/lose position just to break the deadlock.

An impasse can be side-stepped using a simple negotiating strategy: if progress cannot be made on one issue, discuss another one.[9] In other words, shift issues at an impasse. This is a deceptively simple tactic that is often ignored. Both sides mulishly insist that the issue is to be resolved before moving on. But by shifting the issues to a more productive aspect, tension can reduced. By shifting focus, the possibility of a productive outcome being reached is opened up. It may even be possible to gain a good enough overall deal to offset on the contentious issues.[10]

However, sometimes the impasse is too wide to sidestep. Tension and resentment may have increased, and an impasse may have been the result of an uncontrolled escalation. The result is that both parties have invested too much to back down. If this is the case, a negotiation reframe is required, to change the negotiators' perspective from distributing value to creating value for mutual benefit.

From distributing value to creating value

A win/lose relationship can be the result of distributive bargaining. Each party fights for a larger piece of a limited pie. The negotiation can become tense and hostile and the parties defensive and distrusting. An impasse or uncontrolled escalation become hard to avoid. Importantly, the atmosphere encourages each party to show that each and every action has an equal and opposite reaction plus 20% to teach you not to do it again.

The ideal negotiated outcome, the mythical 'win/win' outcome, is a creature of integrative bargaining.[12] It builds consensus between the parties. Consensus building requires a voluntary effort to seek 'all gain' rather than win/lose situations, or unworkable compromises. Uncontrolled escalation is less likely in an environment of cooperation. Win/win agreements can only be achieved when the parties stress the cooperative, and not just the competitive, aspects of their relationship. Contrary to popular belief, win/win does not mean that everybody walks away with exactly what they wanted. Indeed the profile of successful negotiation would often be where both parties walk away somewhat discontented and have conceded more than was originally intended.

The process of building consensus seems simple: everyone involved in the dispute gets together and talks things out. The catch? Before getting together, each party needs to ask themselves questions about their, and their opponents' positions. Working out these positions can be challenging and sometimes complex, but it must be done before coming to the negotiation table.[13]

Answering these questions for your own position clearly makes sense. It defines the issues and how you want them addressed. But the other side's position is often overlooked. Step back and take a hard look at the issues and the relationship, both current and future, between the parties. Consider three factors:[14]

  • the importance of the issues themselves;
  • the total amount of conflict on these issues;
  • the value of the relationship.

By and large, it is your choice whether or not to engage in uncontrolled escalation. It is mostly your choice as to how to work with the other side. Negotiators who engage in integrative bargaining develop reputations that aid them in their dealings and relationships. Those who engage in distributive behaviour are diminished in the eyes of those they interact with. Nelson Mandala, after 27 years in prison, negotiated the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa, settled an agreement on universal suffrage and democratic elections, and became the first black president of the country in 1994. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1993, Mandela, epitomising the integrative bargainer's perspective, said that the advancements in South Africa were only made by "looking ahead to South African reconciliation instead of back at the deep wounds of the past."[15]


[1] Michael Klug has been a partner in Dispute Resolution at Clayton Utz for 28 years. He has taught negotiation for over 21 years and teaches the subject widely to industry and government. He also teaches negotiation at university level to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Back to article

[2] Fisher R & S Brown (1988) Getting Together: Building a Relationship that gets to Yes at p.xi.Back to article

[3]Ibid at p6.Back to article

[4]Susskind L & J Cruikshank (1987) Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes at 89.Back to article

[5]Ibid.Back to article

[6]Ibid.Back to article

[7]Rose C (1987) Negotiate and Win: the Proven Methods of the Negotiation Workshop at 39.Back to article

[8]Ibid.Back to article

[9]Schoonmaker A (1989) Negotiate to Win: Gaining the Psychological Edge at 85. Back to article

[10]Ibid.Back to article

[11]Lewicki R & J Litterer (1985) Negotiation.Back to article

[12]Susskind L & J Cruikshank (1987) Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes at 11.Back to article


[14]Schoonmaker A (1989) Negotiate to Win: Gaining the Psychological Egde at 28.Back to article

[15]http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1993/mandela-lecture.html Back to article

Related Knowledge

Get in Touch

Get in touch information is loading


Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.