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Updated: 14 Dec 2020

Getting them to the Negotiation Table



Valuable advice for every negotiator on how to get a reluctant counterpart to negotiate.

We have a vision that’s going to set the world on fire and make us appear like a hero, if we can pull it off. What if the other negotiator doesn’t want to come to the table? What happens if we do get them there, greet them with smiles and extended hand, and they respond with grim faces shadowed with deep suspicion?

To get our negotiations off to a solid positive start, there are two hurdles we need to overcome before we set out on a positive foot. The first hurdle, is to get the other side to come and talk with us in the first place. Our second hurdle could be their not yet knowing us very well. Perhaps we too don’t yet know a great deal about them. To get the negotiations off on the right foot, we need to know how to set the right tone.

Getting them there is half the battle

The proposals we want to put forth will mean squat, if the other side isn’t interested in joining the party. There could be a number of reasons for this attitude. They may simply be satisfied with how things stand and see no reason to rock the boat. Our organization could be seen as ‘small potatoes‘, having no relevance to their plans.They could have any number of excuses, such as bad timing, or budget issues, that might act as roadblocks before we can even get out of the starting gate.

In an article in the Harvard Business review, two prominent writers in the field of negotiation, Judith Williams and Deborah Kolb, have described what we need to overcome to get out counterparts to the table, as follows;

Such resistance is a natural part of the informal negotiation process. A concern will generally be accorded a fair hearing when someone believes two things: the other party has something desirable, and one’s own objectives will not be met without giving something in return. Willingness to negotiate is therefore, a confession of mutual need.

Our objective then, is to persuade the other side that they will stand to gain if they negotiate, and stand to lose and be worse off if they don’t. So, how do we do this? Here are 3 tips to help persuade your prospective partners to join the negotiations.

1. Motivate them

Everyone needs something, such as extra business, or innovative solutions to help them improve and enhance, or increase their business. We need to figure out what they might need, so that we can ‘dangle a carrot‘ in front of them, to act as an incentive. If we present our proposal so it makes them sit up and take notice, then we can likely entice them, to come to the table and at least have a listen to what we have to say.

2. Snooze – you lose

When things are running smoothly, we don’t like it when someone comes along and rocks the boat. ‘If it’s not broke – don’t fix it‘, could be a motto applied by some companies. We like calm waters, it makes us feel comfortable. Our counterparts may not be keen to tinker with something they see as functioning successfully. To overcome this form of stasis, it can be important, to not only let them know what they will gain, but it might be more important to let them know what they will lose, by not negotiating. That’s right! We have to rock their boat!

3. Gently gang up on them

Sometimes, it might be wise to take an indirect approach, by forging alliances with people to help with the persuasion process. This works best for internal negotiations, as it is easier to find allies within our own organization who can lend their voice to our cause. It may also be possible to forge alliances with power players in the other organization. It is especially helpful to get to know their key players, who might better appreciate the gains to be had, along with the losses that might occur as a result of staying complacent.

They’re at the table – now what?

Now that we have them at the table, we need to start out on the right foot. Before we can steer the meeting using our pre-prepared agenda as we learned on our last negotiation course, we first need to get them to relax and feel comfortable, so they will be more receptive and become involved in the process. We can set the right tone by doing some of the following.

  • Small talk – Before you sit down, take a few moments to get to know them if they seem receptive. Don’t jump into the negotiation unless they insist on doing so, or there are time constraints that force you to hurry along. Nonetheless, always begin with friendly and welcoming remarks.
  • Break Bread – Make sure you offer refreshments and have some snacks available. Using refreshments at the outset or by taking a refreshment break later, will give everyone a chance to chat and become acquainted. It helps alleviate the tension, and we learn much through our chitchat. It helps to build bridges and allows them to measure us as well.
  • Be Smart – If they present themselves as stiff and formal, you don’t want to appear too casual,they may not take you seriously.You need to measure them at the start and shift your approach to match the situation.
  • A good agenda – Make sure they understand the issues by starting with an agenda, to describe what you intend to discuss.When they understand the issues you can then discuss the negotiation process, to see how that sits with them.
  • ListenListen-Listen – They will voice their objections and concerns, so it is imperative that when they are speaking,to listen carefully to what they have to say.You could start out by first expressing some of your own goals and concerns, as a sign of good faith that you are prepared to share information. This is a good way of getting them to reciprocate while opening up the lines of communications. As always, proceed cautiously with what you will share, if they are not as inclined to open up and reciprocate.


Get your counterpart to the table, by motivating them and getting them excited, by what they stand to gain by partnering with you. Perhaps also gently point out what they might lose if they don’t. Once you have them nibbling at the bait, get off on the right foot with a good introductory start at the outset.


  1. Harvard Business Essentials ‘Negotiation’ Harvard Business School Press, (2003).
  2. J. Lewicki, A. Litterer, W.Minton, M. Sauders, ‘Negotiation’, 2nd Edition, Irwin,(1994).
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