Project Description

In his greatest role in a short but brilliant movie career, James Dean played Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause. In one of the key scenes, Jim is facing off against his arch rival, Buzz, in a game of chicken, where they drives toward each other at full speed, the loser being the first to chicken out or turn away. The outcome is tragic, with Buzz dying and Jim becoming a fugitive.

When negotiating, we often play chicken too — trying to bluff the other party. As in Rebel Without A Cause, it becomes a test of strength, of nerve. Whoever blinks first, loses.

We fall into this bluff game for several reasons:

  • We want to show the other side we are powerful.
  • We want them to see how much in control we are.
  • We believe bluffing is one of the accepted ploys in negotiation — it’s just how you play the game.

This desire to appear powerful and in control to the other party is only natural — but it can backfire. It can be one of those occasions when the most satisfying thing to do is not the smartest thing to do.

Ironically, in negotiating, there are times when having less control — and letting the other side know it — makes you more powerful.

To illustrate this point, imagine another hypothetical game of chicken. Driver A and Driver B are speeding toward each other — both determined to make the other change direction first.

Suddenly, Driver A disconnects his steering wheel. (Not a feature of your average car but this is hypothetical, okay?) He then holds the steering wheel outside the car so Driver B can see it.  Instantly, Driver B realises that even if Driver A wanted to change direction, he can’t. Driver B can see two options: change direction or die. He changes direction. Driver A — with less control — wins.

Here are two ways this principle could work for you in negotiation:

Non-negotiable factors

Every bargaining situation involves a number of factors. Often, these will be of different importance to each party, so your aim will be to quarantine those factors you least want to bargain about.

One way of doing this is to let the other side know that there are some factors which are outside your control. It might be a board directive, organisational policy, regulatory requirement — any authority outside your reach.

Now don’t quarantine too many factors, or you’ll have them thinking they are dealing with the wrong person, but the typical reaction is for them to focus on the areas you can negotiate on.

This tool of the unreachable authority has been used since negotiation started and it can work for you. Try a line like this: “I can understand how you would like a lower price; but the way our system works, that is outside my control. If you can accept that, I am able to look at varying the delivery schedules and payment terms. Could that work for you?”


A common belief in negotiating is that the party under the most time pressure loses. So, if you are facing a deadline, you may try to hide it from the other party lest they use it against you.

Again, although counter-intuitive, it can be the smartest thing to do to tell the other party about your deadline. Then, if they are serious about wanting to deal with you, it will become their deadline too.

Deadlines are a powerful tool in the negotiation process. Sure, they are stressful — but they make things happen. The reason for this is that if people don’t know how long a negotiation will last, they tend to hold back in their bargaining — keeping as much as possible for later. With a deadline in sight, they are more inclined to play all their bargaining chips.

In fact, deadlines are so effective, I often suggest arbitrary ones — simply to generate action. If you have a deadline that is real and outside your control (for example, seasonal factors) you don’t need any artificial ploys. You have the best of both worlds, so use it.

Experience has shown that your default position in negotiation is not to share information. While I am not advocating unbridled openness in every negotiation, often the smart sharing of information can really move the process forward.

Sometimes, it is so unexpected by the other side, it shocks them into sharing information they otherwise would not. Now, there’s real progress.