How To Break Impasse in Bargaining

You asked. I answered. In response to your requests, the last few blog posts have been about some practical elements of the bargaining process itself. We debunked the misunderstood art of concessions and explored the importance of knowing your BATNA before bargaining. Today, we’re going to tackle impasse and how to break it. What is an impasse? The dictionary defines it as “a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement.” Synonyms offered include deadlock, dead end, stalemate, checkmate, standoff, standstill, halt, stop, stoppage, full stop. The word’s origins are French, meaning unable to pass.

Clearly this is not a desired state in negotiations. The goal is not generally to hit stalemate (although there are admittedly times when this may be a strategic desired result). Even with the best of intentions, however, typically, negotiations come to an impasse at some point. So, given that the end game for most bargaining is to actually come to an agreement and get a deal, it’s important to consider how to break an impasse when you come up against it.

Parties usually hit an impasse over the matter (or substance) of negotiations versus the mean (or process). Although, there are certainly times when the how of bargaining is important enough to one or both parties that it can cause a stalemate – sometimes right out of the gate. I’m sure you’ve had that experience, even though you may not have thought of it as an ‘impasse’. For example, if you can’t agree on where or when to meet with someone, so the meeting keeps getting put off, you have hit an impasse of sorts. Most impasse, though, happens over the ‘meat’ of the bargaining issues.

What are some strategies or tactics to get around an impasse? Here’s just a few to consider:

  1. Nibble approach: don’t try to resolve the entire issue that led to impasse, but instead, nibble around the edges and/or take little bites towards solving the problem at hand.
  2. Role Reversal: have each side put themselves in the shoes of the other side – actually play devil’s advocate by each arguing against your own position and for the other side.
  3. Record-check: put together a summary of issues agreed to date – this allows both sides to focus on the progress made rather than the stalemate and can often open up the parties to finding a creative solution.
  4. Future focus: have both parties focus on the ideal future they envision if an agreement were to be reached – this refocuses energy away from the block and on the possibility and promise an agreement could bring.
  5. Reframe: try to reframe the outcomes as seen or perceived by one or both sides – i.e. reframe the perception from a loss to a win.
  6. Give and Take: ask ‘what would you offer if I were to concede on this?’ or alternatively consider offering something in return for their concession.
  7. Shift: switch the conversation away from the contentious issue that led to the impasse to allow the possibility of some forward momentum and come back to it later.
  8. Trial period: propose a trial period – that way neither party is tied to a long-term buy-in, but instead can see if the proposal works or not.
  9. Trial balloon: float a trial balloon by asking a hypothetical question: “What if I was to …” – that way you’re not tied to the suggestion but might get some movement forward.
  10. Take a Break: take a temporary break from the negotiation and reconvene at another time.
  11. Change-up: bring in another negotiator to change the energy and momentum.
  12. No-side Neutral: bring in a 3rd party neutral to mediate.
  13. Fear Factor: have both sides share and address their respective fears – this can often be a launching point to better solutions all round.
  14. Share Stories: it’s easy to say no to positions, but harder to dismiss someone’s story – so, share your ‘stories’/perspectives on (i) why you each think you’re at an impasse and (ii) why the issue is so important to each of you – this can open up meaningful dialogue that can lead to better solutions.
  15. Set Change: change the venue – sometimes a change of scenery can change the energy and unblock one or both parties.
  16. Research and Regroup: sometimes you may need to go away and do further research and agree to regroup once you’re both armed with more information and/or options.
  17. Ask, Ask, Ask: ask diagnostic questions – in other words, employ the 5W’s (see earlier blog post series on the importance of invoking the 5W’s) – use open-ended questions about who, what, where, when, why and also how to dig to determine the other side’s real needs, desires, fears and deeper why.

These are just a few ideas to help you get out of the box if you find yourself at an impasse in your negotiations. Ideally, you want to determine what is causing the impasse and address the root problem. Sometimes, though, good old-fashioned diversion, distraction or change-ups can do the trick. Whenever possible, be aware of the need to allow a face-saver for the other side (and yourself if necessary). Know how to re-open talks without a loss of face for either side and without sacrificing your power. Ultimately, we all have self-interest in our bargaining. Find a way to meet the needs of that self-interest by getting creative rather than getting stuck. Here’s to busting through the barriers to get from impasse to pass through!



bargaining, BATNA, How To Break Impasse

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