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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

Dealing with Disingenuous Negotiators

When you enter a negotiation, the general expectation is that the other party actually endeavors to negotiate a mutually acceptable deal. The unfortunate reality is that this is not always the case. There is always a chance the other side is looking for a way to use a negotiation with you to achieve some other goal entirely. It is not common, but it does happen. To understand how to deal with situations where the other negotiating party has no interest in coming to an agreement, it is important to understand why they might enter the negotiation disingenuously, how to spot a disingenuous negotiator, and what to do if you find yourself with a disingenuous counterpart at the table.

Why would someone go through the charade?

Fundamentally, there are four reasons why a party enters negotiations with no intention of concluding a deal: (1) To allow other options to open up. In this case, it is all about buying time for alternatives to come available. Maybe the other side's alternatives are weak or nonexistent, and they are are hoping that something better comes along. Or perhaps they are already anticipating something opening up and just need to bide time until it does. The goal is to keep you as the alternative in case none of those things come to fruition, as expected.

(2) To placate players outside the negotiation. A party may enter a negotiation based on orders or political theater. In the former case, negotiators may have been ordered by a higher up in government to negotiate with your side, but they have no intention of seeing it through to successful completion. In the latter case, your counterpart may be just trying to give the appearance "playing nice" despite perhaps otherwise untoward intentions. With governments, this is common when a country is seeking to avoid scrutiny from the international community. (3) To prevent you from exercising your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). This is a stalling tactic meant to keep you from pursuing other options or other fora for negotiating a deal. The goal for the disingenuous party here is to obligate you to its negotiation even though there is no prospect for moving forward. (4) To influence another negotiation. Governments, organizations, or individuals may enter negotiations with the intent of making their position look stronger to other parties. This is especially common in price negotiations where someone may have a preferred partner in mind, but enters other negotiations with another to drive up the price tag. 

How to spot disingenuous negotiations

It is important to distinguish between a disingenuous party that enters a negotiation from those who simply employ bad faith tactics or whose bargaining range is not within the zone of possible agreement. Just because a negotiation seems like a waste of time does not necessarily mean that is intentional, so you have make a measured assessment because there are different approaches for each case. To do that, there are four steps you can take.

(1) Start with interests. A basic rule in any negotiation is to negotiate interests rather than positions. What this means is to explore each sides’ core needs instead of the specific things they may be demanding at the negotiating table. This rule is useful in identifying disingenuous negotiators. A disingenuous negotiating party will either be unable to articulate their interests or will be inconsistent with whatever they claim their interests are. That is because if their interests lay beyond what you can provide via a negotiated deal, they will have difficulty articulating those interests to you in an authentic way and will resort either to silence, lies, or obfuscation. 

(2) Observe negotiating behaviors. A good negotiating counterpart will be responsive, will answer questions authentically, and will offer proposals and counter-proposals. A disingenuous negotiator does the opposite. If your counterpart is hard to reach, offers rote responses or none at all, and shows no flexibility in fielding or presenting proposals, then you may be dealing with a party that is not serious about concluding a deal. (3) Research the other side. Supplement the information you are able to gain from the negotiating table with good old fashioned research on the other side. If they are not communicating their interests or being clear on their proposals, you may be able to find out why by reviewing their domestic situation, studying what is going on with them vis-à-vis external parties, and analyzing what they might be hoping to get out of the negotiation.

(4) Reach out to other players. If you suspect that your negotiating counterpart is either actively engaged in talks with other players or holding out for them, it helps to reach other to those players. They may be able to provide you with critical information for your negotiation, whether it relates to the other side's available alternatives or interests.

What to do about disingenuous negotiators

If you determine that the other side is being disingenuous about negotiating a deal, there are four basic options available to you. (1) Call them out. This may seem too direct, but a good practice for any negotiation is labeling bad behavior for what it is. Sometimes that means identifying bad faith tactics. Other times that means highlighting when the other side is losing control of themselves at the negotiating table. In the case of disingenuous negotiators, it means stating plainly that you believe the other side has no intent of reaching a deal and laying out the evidence of why you believe that to be true. Sometimes that is enough to shake something loose, especially if your counterpart is operating under orders to negotiate.  (2) Demand another negotiating counterpart. If your counterpart is not interested in negotiating a deal, you are within your right to request a new counterpart or hold out until there is a personnel change. Demanding a swap out is not a course of action to take lightly, but if you have sufficient evidence that your counterpart is being disingenuous or obstructive, then it is a viable option available to you. (3) Take steps to eliminate the other side's alternatives. This move can prove difficult depending on the size and scope of the negotiation. Still, if you can make side deals or convince others to give you the space needed to negotiate a deal with your counterpart, that may be the thing that forces the other side to be serious about their engagement with you. (4) Exercise your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). If all else fails, walk away from the negotiation. If you have tried the steps above and still nothing has changed, you cannot hinge your negotiating strategy on the prospect that somehow the other side is suddenly going to become more genuine in their approach. Exercise your best alternative and carry on.

Cable No 4_Dealing with disingenuous negotiators
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