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How Time Pressure Affects The Outcome Of A Negotiation

Roger Dawson

In Puerto Prince, Haiti, former President Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, and Senator Sam Nunn were in intense negotiations with Haiti’s military commander, General Cedras. The phone rang and it was President Clinton calling to tell them that he had already started the invasion and they had 30 minutes to get out of there.

That was putting extreme time pressure on the negotiation, and people become flexible under time pressure. When do your children ask you for something? Just as you’re rushing out of the door, right? When my daughter Julia was attending the University of Southern California, she lived in a sorority house and would sometimes come home for the weekends and need money for books. When would she ask me? Seven o’clock on a Monday morning, just as she was racing out the door she’d say, “Dad, I’m sorry, I forgot; I need $60 for books.”

I’d say, “Julia, don’t do this to me. I teach this stuff. How come you’ve been home all weekend, and we didn’t have a chance to talk about it before?”

“Oh sorry, Dad, I just didn’t think about it until I got ready to go, but I’m late now, I’ve got to get on the freeway, or I’ll be late for class. If I can’t get my books today, I won’t be able to get my assignment in on time. So please, can I have the money now, and we’ll talk next weekend?”

Children are not that manipulative, but instinctively, over all those years of dealing with adults, they understand that under time pressure people become more flexible. The problem was that President Carter was putting time pressure on the wrong side.

Power Negotiators know that an interesting question is raised when both sides are approaching the same time deadline, as was the case in Haiti. Think of this in terms of you renewing your office lease for example. Let’s say that your five-year lease is up in six months, and you must negotiation a renewal with your landlord. You might think to yourself, “I’ll use time pressure on the landlord to get the best deal. I’ll wait until the last moment to negotiate with him. That will put him under a great deal of time pressure. He’ll know that if I move out the place will be vacant for several months until he can find a new tenant.” That seems like a great strategy until you realize that there’s no difference between that and the landlord refusing to negotiate until the last minute to put time pressure on you.

So, there you have a situation in which both sides are approaching the same time deadline. Which side should use time pressure and which side should avoid it? The answer is that the side who has the most power could use time pressure, but the side with the least power should avoid time pressure and negotiate well ahead of the deadline. Fair enough, but who has the most power? The side with the most options has the most power. If you can’t reach a negotiated renewal of the lease, who has the best alternatives available to them?

To determine this you might take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side, list your options in the event that you are unable to renew the lease. What other locations are available to you? Would they cost more or less? How much would it cost you to move the telephones and print new stationary? Would your customers be able to find you if you move?

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