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Updated: 23 May 2019

Business Negotiation Metaphors

Business Metaphors


Metaphors can provide clues to how a negotiator might view the business negotiation.  Through examining this articles examples, we are able to gain further insight of the other party during negotiations when we unravel the words.

“A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.”
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Words can have a powerful impact. The manner in which words are applied in a business negotiation can make or break the deal. This is especially clear if our dialogue is phrased poorly, misinterpreted or misunderstood. Words can evoke visceral reactions or emotional responses such as boiling rage or howls of laughter.

The language we use also provides some clues and insight about the individuals on our own negotiation team. Unravelling these clues can tell us a lot about our counterpart in a negotiation, and can even lend some introspection into our own psyche along the way. Understanding these cues entails acute listening. When we understand what to listen for, then the end result may be the needed edge in gaining our counterpart’s signature. Listening to the language used is also a valuable tool for the mediator or the third party who is trying to find a negotiation conflict resolution.

The particular area of dialogue we are going to examine in our business negotiation examples is the use of negotiation metaphors; how they apply to a negotiator or might impact our negotiations. Webster’s Dictionary defines a ‘metaphor‘ as a “figure of speech in which a name or quality is attributed to something which it is not literally applicable, e.g. ‘an icy glance‘,or ‘nerves of steel‘.“ A metaphor is often used in framing a dispute or situation, or the means by which we address or approach a negotiation problem. Often, the metaphors used in business are at the core of how a person perceives the situation and suggests how they might react or respond.

Metaphors as an Emotional Mirror

In business negotiations, whether we’re sitting on the opposite side of the negotiation table or in the middle as a third party mediator, the metaphors used can help orientate us to how people think or identify the event as the negotiation unfolds. Metaphors mirror our emotional perspectives; the conscious perspective and more importantly, the unconscious perspective. Additionally, the use of metaphors provides a means to discern not just what they said, but also what they intended to say!

These two points are especially important in the more collaborative negotiation process that has emerged in recent times. The parties to a negotiation who adopt positions in a negotiation are in fact fuelled by underlying interests such as security and self esteem. In other words, we must unravel what the negotiation is “really“ about. Unless a negotiator can unlock these underlying interests, the negotiation may stumble along like a stuttering auto in fits and starts. How we view our counterpart’s real interests is dependent on our ability to get them to reveal their understanding of the issues or conflicts. It’s all about dialogue management.

We can use the other person’s use of metaphors to “hear” what they are really saying, as well as to understand their true thoughts or feelings. This will guide us in how we should respond, react, or when necessary, to intervene in conflict management.

What does this mean in practical application? Lets explore and use examples to illustrate.

How Metaphors Reflect a Negotiation Relationship

Let’s take one glaring example to illustrate the point and the underlying psychological component that lies beneath the surface. If one negotiating party is using a “combat“ connotation as a metaphor in their dialogue, this could be very telling about their make-up and negotiation relationship attitudes. They may see the negotiation process in terms of either “win or lose.“ This might present an attitude of an “all’s fair in love and war“ type mentality where they are suspicious of our motives.

A combative competitive negotiation style may also influence them to apply unethical tactics against us. Our negotiating counterpart might withhold vital information or use a negotiation approach that is designed to conceal their real intent. As a negotiator or mediator, we might need to use a combat metaphor to change the mood of the dispute by suggesting something along the lines of “making a truce or ceasefire.

Another means to address combative business metaphors is to change the metaphor into something else to alter the direction of the negotiation. The idea is to prompt the counterparty into a different mindset and engage in negotiation conflict resolution. For example, if one party says “we‘ve been fighting over this for weeks,“ you might change the combative context to something more benign by replying that the dispute does indeed appear to be “well choreographed.“ This subtle change in metaphor usage suggests a collaborative mentality instead of an “us versus them“ attitude.

How Metaphors Affect the Negotiation Process

The use of metaphors in business can provide a clue about the negotiation style being employed by one or both parties and how they can result in negotiation conflicts. Let’s examine some of the most common positive and negative metaphors employed by negotiators and see what their meaning might convey.

Negative Metaphors

  • War metaphors: Could mean “anything goes”. Any such references suggest a combative approach or business negotiation style. Such an attitude should prompt a negotiator to approach the negotiation with considerable caution.
  • Poker metaphors: Poker and related terminology could suggest that the other party will resort to the use of “bluffing” in their repertoire of tactics, so we have to be vigilant about of the possibility of this tactic being employed against us.
  • Games or sports metaphors: There are both positive and negative references here. Some negotiators view a negotiation like a chess game. The idea is to outsmart your opponent by strategising with the plan of mating the opponent’s king. Chess players don’t play for a draw if they can avoid it – they want to win! When we play games or sports, we always play to beat our opponent. Negotiators might be inclined to vigorously defend the positions they adopt in making proposals or in responding to offers.
  • Sports metaphors can sometimes be ambiguous. If reference is made to a “level playing field,“ it may mean they are talking about the negotiation strengths of either side. On the other hand, this expression may show their desire to take a more collaborative approach.
  • Mountain climbing metaphors: This one is not good at all. It suggests an uphill struggle all the way, especially if one of the parties makes reference to heading towards a “precipice.“ There won’t be much “smooth sailing“ here, if you’ll please pardon the pun.

Positive Metaphors

There are also positive metaphors that can provide vital clues to the negotiator’s style or the type of negotiation you might be encountering. Positive phrases that suggest a collaborative approach might include such phrases as:

  • “mending fences”
  • “building bridges”
  • “hammering out our differences”
  • “working through our problem”

Metaphors as a Self-Reflection

More importantly, we should ask ourselves what metaphors we like to use. The language we use during the business negotiation, even a casual, off the cuff remark, could have reverberations down the road. Metaphors can be used to telegraph out intent. If your counterpart jokingly suggests to you that they think you’re only “holding a pair of deuces,“ don’t you think you’re likely to sit up straight and wonder what they’re really up to? On the other hand for example, if they suggest that “we ought to be dancing more in sync,“ wouldn’t that suggest that we might be headed towards a productive agreement that has good value for both sides?

Now, just put yourself in your counterpart’s shoes and think about the metaphors that you might have uttered or employed during a negotiation. Ask yourself just what you might have been “telegraphing“ to them! Were you suggesting a problem solving approach or a battle?


Language is everything. What you say and how you say it can be literally translated into how your counterpart will respond to you or vice versa. The business metaphors we employ in our negotiations can influence how either party is perceived by the other. We can also change the metaphors we use to influence the mood of a business negotiation and to bring about a result that is both positive and productive.

Reference: The Negotiators Fieldbook, “The Road to Hell is Paved with Metaphors”, Howard Gadlin, Andrea Schneider, and Christopher Honeyman

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4.5 out of 5 from 2 responses
  • 2
    Jeanine O'Neill-Blac on

    Great article on the power of metaphors in shaping how we view our world. We (www.4mat4business.com) work with training and development professionals on how to shift metaphors, as part of the learning process. I particularly enjoy the real-world illustrations of how this plays out. Well done.

  • 12
    Piotr Jednaszewski PhD on

    Very good article. Negotiation process fully depends on the language we use, words we can or cannot hear. The same about understanding what is between the lines and much more… All coded in the language we produce and listen to.

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