The Power Of Surprise In A Negotiation

Surprise is yet another tool in a negotiation
Surprise is yet another tool in a negotiation
Image Credit: Rebecca Partington

If you were to ask professional negotiators what they really don’t like to happen during a negotiation, I’m pretty sure that they’d tell you that they don’t like surprises. When we enter into a negotiation, we have plans and we believe that we know how things are going to unfold in terms of negotiation styles and negotiating techniques. When surprises happen this can throw all of our carefully laid plans into disarray. However, is it possible that surprise could be yet another type of negotiating tool?

Surprise As A Negotiating Tactic

We rarely think of a surprise as being any sort of negotiating tactic. Don’t surprises just “happen”? It turns out that no, surprises don’t “just happen” more often than not. Although something may come as a surprise to you, there is a very good chance that it’s not a surprise to the other side of the table. They planned it from the beginning and they intended it to come as a surprise to you.

As a negotiating tactic, surprise can be a powerful tool that can be used to allow one side of the table to maintain pressure on the other side of the table. The thinking is that by dropping a surprise on the other side, you’ll be able to put them off balance and as they try to deal with the new situation, you can pounce and attempt to get the concessions or deal that you want out of the negotiations.

However, as with all negotiating tactics, surprise comes with its own set of disadvantages. When you drop a surprise on the other side of the table that they were not expecting, you will create a sense of both fear and distrust. Your communication paths with the other side are going to be compromised by the arrival of a surprise. Since the other side had not anticipated that a surprise could occur, there is a very real chance that they may find themselves in a situation where they could lose face within their company. If this situation happens, you could quickly see them start to harden their negotiating positions.

Types Of Surprises In A Negotiation

As a negotiator, you need to be able to recognize surprises for what they are – yet another negotiating tactic. Once you can recognize them, you’ll be able to respond to them more effectively when they show up. There are many different types of surprises that you need to be able to deal with.

The most common type of surprise that shows up in a negotiation is an issue surprise. This occurs when a new demand is made, a concession is taken back, there is a change in a someone’s position on an issue or if the level of risk associated with something changes. A different type of surprise are time surprises. These have to do with deadlines, negotiating sessions that suddenly become much shorter than was planned, slowing down or speeding up the pace of a negotiation, and extending negotiations into the night or over a weekend or holiday.

Move surprises are classic ones that include having people walk out of the negotiation, take unplanned recesses, delaying the negotiations, having an emotional outburst, or even interrupting the negotiations. Finally, there are people surprises in which people have unexpected outbursts, they may attack your integrity or your intelligence, people on the other team may be swapped out, senior staff are brought into the negotiations, or people simply don’t show up for the negotiation.

What All Of This Means For You

When we enter into a principled negotiation, we have expectations that we basically know how things are going to proceed. When we get surprised during a negotiation, this can throw us off of our game. We tend to look upon surprises as just a fact of life. However, in negotiations, it turns out that more often than not, surprises are just one more negotiating tactic that is being used by the other side of the table.

Hitting you with a surprise is a clever tactic. It can throw you off of your game and cause you to spend precious time trying to create a new strategy. While you are dealing with surprise, the other side can press their requests to have you either make concessions or to agree to a final deal. Surprises come in many different forms. Four of the most common are issue, time, move, and people surprises.

As with so many other things in negotiations, simply understanding that when you get surprised during a negotiation that you may be dealing with a negotiating tactic is your first step in being successful. Next, you’ll need to determine what type of surprise you are dealing with and then take the appropriate counter measures. Don’t be fooled – nothing happens by chance during a negotiation!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Negotiating Skills™

Question For You: Do you think planning a surprise for the other side is a wise move or will it cause them to harden their negotiating position?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

When we start a negotiation, hopefully we all know what we’d like to get out of the negotiation. However, as we size up the other side of the table, there is a good chance that we may be making a crucial mistake. We may be making assumptions about them based on their appearance or how they act that are untrue. If we do this, then our chances of getting the deal that we want are at risk. What can we do to make sure that we evaluate the other side correctly?