Negotiating with Those More Powerful than We Are

My good friend Sejal asked me at dinner last night how we can negotiate successfully with people more powerful than ourselves such as a boss, a strong willed partner, a co-worker whose cooperation we need, or even another country that is militarily stronger than our country.

Most people handle such conflict dysfunctionally, because they think the crucial variable is the relative absolute power on each side. And, of course, people with power encourage this approach. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called this use of power Hegemony. And there is no doubt it is often easier to fall in with them, though this can be very destructive to our sense of self, if prolonged or where our crucial interests are at stake.

From my experience, I think it is a mistake to think that the crucial variable is the relative absolute power on each side of the negotiation. The crucial variable in my view is the alternative to negotiation the two sides. Technically in conflict studies this is called the BATNA or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, though I prefer my own term BEBATNA or Best Estimate of the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement as there is always some uncertainty around it that we should recognize and indeed as we negotiate we may change our estimate of what will happen if negotiations break down.

This may seem counter-intuitive to some people, so let me give you an historical example. In 1972 peace talks started over the future of Vietnam between the most powerful military power on the planet the United States of America and the government of the People’s Republic of Vietnam aka North Vietnam, one of the poorest countries on the planet and at the mercy of massive US bombing raids. In the absolute power model, the USA was clearly dominant because of its sheer wealth and power.

But in reality, whether the two sides reached an agreement and the balance of that agreement was dependent on what the two sides saw as the BEBATNAs. In reality, the US thought short term electoral cycle, and about the huge domestic opposition to the war, and the cost. And this meant that the US really could not afford for the negotiations to fail. The Vietnamese on the other hand had been fighting since 1945, had already shown their willingness to lose hundreds of thousands of dead, and given what they saw as their goal of national independence of a united country, they were probably willing to fight for another thirty years.

So in reality the Vietnamese had the balance of negotiating power, because their BEBATNA trumped the militarily stronger but politically weaker US BEBATNA massively. A minor logistical detail of the talks illustrates this nicely. When they arrived for the talks, the US team rented apartments for their team to live in. The Vietnamese bought a big house reflecting their willingness to negotiate for a long time.

So if you want to figure out how to negotiate with a powerful opponent, figure out your and their BEBATNAs. If it’s a boss, then figure out what other job you could get so you can walk from a toxic boss. And how much hassle it is to replace you. That gives you power. If you have a toxic dominating partner, consider what it would take to leave them. And if you are a country with a militarily stronger neighbor, think like the Vietnamese, though I wonder if the latter actually considered the real interests of their people given they paid at least 2 million lives for their BEBATNA and now are just as capitalist as anywhere else. But that said, the Vietnamese effectively ‘won’ the Paris Peace talks and by 1975 had taken over the whole country…but at what cost.

The approach I suggest above is not kamikaze, but based on a careful consideration of the alternatives to a negotiated outcome so you get can seek an agreement that reflects your relative negotiating power rather than absolute power differentials. There will be times when you decide to go with the power and let them have their way, but do so having carefully considered the BEBATNAs of both sides. They have interests, they probably know that if they constantly have people walking from their deals, it will weaken them.

Another personal example. We owned one half of a pair of cottages and the other half cottage came up for sale. The owner thought he could get a large premium because we were so keen to get the other half. He was right, but we had a strong BEBATNA. We rented an apartment elsewhere, near my work, and our landlord had just offered to sell us our appartment at a good price, which happened to be about the market price  X of the other half of the cottage. So we had an alternative to negotiating to buy the half cottage; we could spend the same money on something else. On balance for the long term, we actually preferred to spend the money on the half cottage, but told the seller: ‘Hey we can pay X for your half cottage, or we can spend X on buying our rented apartment. Suddenly the power he thought he had disappeared and his vision of getting X plus 30% was not possible. He sold to us for X. Now as in poker, it would not actually have mattered if our landlord had not offered to sell to us; we could have bluffed, but in general I tend to value my reputation for straight dealing and would not want to do this.

And of course, powerful people are often bullies to those less powerful than we are. And if you are dealing with someone who thinks their power entitles them to treat you badly, then some of the tactics from my earlier postings on Dealing with Difficult People, Negotiating with Sociopaths and Negotiating with Narcissists may help. But fundamentally your real power against them is the power to walk away and that is what needs preparing for what you expect to be difficult absolute power differentials in negotiation.

Footnote: Based on @louploup’s comment below, let me make it clear that by walk away in the last paragraph, I do not mean give in. I mean stop negotiating if you can get a better solution by not negotiating, but by suing, protesting, fighting or simply enduring to fight another day, whatever. The walk away simply means you can get a better solution by not negotiating, because what the powerful party is offering you is worse than your BEBATNA…

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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4 Responses to Negotiating with Those More Powerful than We Are

  1. louploup2 says:

    “your real power against them is the power to walk away”

    There are some circumstances where this option is very poor in results for the weaker, walking party. For example, I have been involved in land use policy issues in my city for years, and over time the developers generally control things to their benefit, often to the detriment of the quality of peoples’ neighborhoods and communities (as well as to the fisc of the whole city). The options left to the weaker party are to give up, go to court, or keep working to improve the political situation.

    Giving up allows the developers to get what they want at less cost and reduces pressure on the government to require better mitigation for the impact of development. Administrative appeals and going to court is expensive (time and money), risky (with a stacked deck), and greatly uncertain in results, but it does tend to push specific parties back to the table–litigation is a good way to reduce the balance of power at least some. On the other hand, litigation rarely improves the overall governance situation.

    I think in this situation, with complex multi-party dynamics in a top 30 U.S. city, it is in the interest of the neighborhoods to take the Vietnamese path: We are here for the long haul and we’re not going away–deal with us at the table, or deal with us in court and on the ballot repeatedly. We will obstruct your projects and raise your costs as much as possible until you address our concerns. Dedicated persistence is crucial to keeping the city’s power elite at the table.

    Sometimes it takes a revolt at the ballot box to make real changes. It’s happened before. My guidebook for dealing with this urban policy situation:

    • @louploup. I was thinking of walking away meaning to stop negotiating with the powerful party. In the case of a marriage that might mean walking away from it and ending it. But it could equally well mean in the political arena taking them to court, demonstrating, declaring political war, or using any form of asymmetrical power to counter their absolute power and money advantage. Then they may return to the negotiation clearer on the strength of your BEBATNA relative to theirs. The Vietnamese were not prepared to even talk, while they were being bombed, and that is the sort of walk away I was thinking about. Not a giving in…not something I have ever done myself by the way.

      • louploup2 says:

        I realized as I wrote my comment that “walking away” was more nuanced than I initially thought. I do like the BEBATNA approach to deciding how to proceed. Unfortunately, real life situations are usually very messy with no clear answers.

      • @louploup2. Yes but trying to retain the complexity in your head makes it even measier. I always found writing it down helped make the messiness easier to handle, reflect on, come back to another time. The people who worked for me hated writing it down cos it required real thought. 🙂 And my bosses certainly didn’t want it. But I did it anyway. And in cases like those you describe, focusing on building a very strong BEBATNA such as a well organized campaign is helped by the approach I suggest. It allows a very targeted BEBATNA building strategy…

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