Good negotiators concentrate intently on what they are being locked into, when the tie takes hold of them, and how tightly it binds. This is what negotiation theorists refer to as the element of commitment.
How tightly do you wish to be bound? The answer to such an abstract question, of course, is “it depends.” In some things you want to be bound up as tightly as possible – for example, the snugness of your seatbelt on a curvy road. In others, such as which televisions shows you will watch next month, you probably want to be as loosely obligated as possible.
While not an iron clad rule, it is generally true that negotiators seek to bind their partners as tightly as possible while leaving themselves as much wiggle room as the situation will allow. Permitting yourself future discretion preserves a later flexibility that might prove valuable in changing circumstances. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to preserve some choice.
On the other hand, we seek to lock in our negotiating partners. We will need to rely on their promises to make the deal viable. The more confident we are that they will keep their word; the more valuable is our arrangement with them. If we fear they will break their pledge then we must take the cost of that risk into consideration. It is to our advantage if we can structure the agreement in a way that forces their faithful performance.
This simple concept has profound implications for how you should think about each action in a negotiation. The goal becomes reflecting on this at every stage of the process. You will consider how it affects you and the impact it may have on them. Where possible, you want to construct each step so that they are extremely likely to do what they promised.
Very often, a successful negotiation is put together as a series of small steps. This can be thought of as confidence building. At each step, the parties bind themselves a little bit further to each other. Each side gets to observe the other reliably keeping their word and acting as a trustworthy partner. Over time, the relationship is strengthened and the groundwork laid for further cooperation.
At the other extreme is a negotiator’s attempt to convince her partner that she cannot yield under any circumstances. Hence, we find some of the world’s greatest minds hanging around at Harvard and pondering a metaphor involving two dynamite trucks. The two trucks are racing toward each other at top speed along the side of a mountain. Collision will mean certain death in a fiery crash. Across the rapidly diminishing space between them, the two drivers’ eyes lock. This is the critical moment. At that point, one of the driver’s throws his steering wheel out the window. With this act, he has said to the other, “I cannot yield, you must.” This (the pondering, not the daredevil truck driving) has been going on for decades.
There is a vast gulf between the series of small confidence building agreements and the obstinacy of the dynamite driver. Both are important concepts to understand, along with a universe of actions and tactics that lie in between. Consider, if you will, which reminds you more of the current situation among our leaders in Washington.