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A Stuck Negotiation – The Problem with Positions

By Article, Resources, Video

I had a negotiation dilemma recently.

I provided a training session for a professional organisation. It went very well so they requested a series of sessions. They asked for a 10% discount if they booked a certain number. I agreed.

When an email confirming the agreement arrived, the 10% discount was per workshop and it was minus GST – becoming an 18% discount!

Confused, I queried this. I received a ‘take it or leave it’ position.

Concerned, I asked if we could meet to work out collaborative + creative options that would work for us both? They wouldn’t budge!

It had become adversarial – they were stuck in a position and it wasn’t helping the outcome or the relationship…

So what went wrong?

Being stuck in a position + the choice of negotiation model.

In my experience, conflict often arises due to the fixed position of one or both parties.

The problem is when the “I’m right” positions (or points of view) become stuck and entrenched into adversarial sides. My role as a mediator is to facilitate a (psychologically safe) process that enables both parties to leave their oppositional ends to move toward understanding the other.

By exploring the other’s position relative to your own, it will more than likely shift your perception of the situation (and of them).

Your (one-sided) perspective is only part of the whole story. It does, however, take courage + willingness to explore. If both have genuine intent to want to understand the other (and hence, the entire story), then the majority of the time the conflict will be resolved.

Both parties will have left their previous positions to move toward the centre of mutual understanding. If they refuse to leave their position (through fear or obstinance), then the conflict (& it’s consequences on individual + team wellbeing) will escalate.

This is applicable in both our professional + personal lives.


1. Know/ Understand your position is only part of the story
2. Approach the other with a collaborative + curious mindset
3. Listen to understand the other’s perspective (remember – you don’t have to agree with their perspective – just understand)
4. Explore options that are mutually beneficial + agreeable.


Most of us are happy to play the bartering game to get a quick walk-away deal on that fake Rolex in Bali but will a positional bargaining model work when you want to negotiate a contract or pay rise AND need to keep the relationship intact with the other party?

Probably not.

Positional (or distributional) bargaining is a model that frames negotiation as an adversarial, zero-sum exercise (i.e. if I get more you lose more) focused on claiming rather than creating value.

Typically, one party will start (or anchor) with a high (or low) offer and the other a correspondingly low (or high) one. Then a series of concessions are made until an agreement is reached somewhere in the middle or no agreement is reached at all.

  • The problems with positional bargaining in a nutshell?
    Negotiators who bargain over positions are typically reluctant to back down and become invested in “saving face.”
  • It often becomes about control, a contest of egoic wills, a win-lose war, resulting in anger and resentment.
  • Parties tend to perceive offers as signs of weakness and vulnerability rather than as potential value-creating moves.
  • The fixation on winning can blow up both the negotiation at hand and any chance of a long-term business relationship.

And unfortunately, for many, positional bargaining is the only negotiation model they know.

So, what’s the alternative you may ask?

The collaborative negotiation model (AKA integrative or interest-based negotiation)!

It is not only ethical, it will also create the best deal and build the relationship! Win/ Win/ Win!

In 2019, I was fortunate to go to Boston and attend the Negotiation & Leadership Program at Harvard Law School with experts such as Bruce Patton (Difficult Conversations) & Gabriela Blum.

They spoke about the 3 core components in a negotiation – the substance (i.e. what you are negotiating about), the process of negotiation (i.e the model) + the relationship (ensuring it will be sustainable).

They advised that the collaborative negotiation model can expand the pie of value in a dispute by opening up key interests and preferences, which can help identify possible solutions that will work for all. Working to generate creative options in contract and business negotiations can help avoid positional bargaining and achieve mutually beneficial and sustainable agreements (+ relationships!).

It is not about tricks + tactics rather it is about genuinely understanding each other and having the intent of trying to make it work for both.
Those who have been to my mediation and/ or difficult conversations training will know of my CINO model and its importance within negotiation.

C – what are your concerns?
I – what is important to you?
N – what are your needs?
O – what can you offer?

If we can understand the CINO of both, then agreements can be created that meet the needs of both. It does however require a mind shift from trying to win as much of the fixed pie just for ourselves, to expanding the pie in collaboration with the other to create even more value for both parties.

Video from Harvard here:

PS I offer collaborative negotiation as an in-house training and use the collaborative process in the following (open + in-house) trainings: Difficult Conversations, Mediation + Team Culture.

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