Breaking the Deadlock

Apr 10, 2011 2 Comments by

Change Agents can learn a lot about what not to do when negotiating by studying the actions of our US Congress over the past few weeks. Their cliff-hanging, economy-threatening, bad-mouthing lack of progress brought the government to within a couple hours of a shutdown. In my last post I listed a few of the negative lessons I thought we could draw from the fiasco.

Better Practices: In today’s article, I’d like to focus on some techniques that I have seen work for Change Agents and Change Leaders when they find themselves in the middle of a deadlocked negotiation.

1.  Use a Facilitator: This is probably the most important tip I can give to groups heading into a challenging negotiation.  Both sides may stake out their positions early and this can make it hard to even listen the opposite position – let alone understand it. Almost all aspects of difficult negotiation can go more smoothly if there is a truly independent facilitation role present.  Have them bring professional tools, techniques and processes. Make sure the person in this role really is neutral or you run the risk of appearing to stack the deck in favor of one side!

2. Talk About the Best Case: Have each side describe their vision of a perfect outcome to the negotiation. As part of this assignment, have them also include what they think would be considered a good outcome from the other side’s frame of reference. This technique is most effective if the speakers are allowed to finish their description without comment or questions. It can be a great way for each side to get a better feel for the underlying motivations of their contemporaries which may result in more creative solutions to the stalemate.

3. Paint the Worst Case: Sometimes it can help to see what is really at stake when attempting to break a log jam. Have each side jot down the ugly details of the negative things that could happen if the group is not able to work through the negotiation and reach an agreement. Warning: This is a risky technique that can get loaded down with fear-mongering, so keep it short – 5-10 minutes max. Keep it to one or two speakers from each side as well.  Avoid the temptation to allow this exercise to turn into a “gripe session” where a round-robin of negativity envelopes the entire conversation. The upside to sharing scary stories, it can help everyone see the gravity of the situation and light a fire under the negotiating team.

4. Be a Fly on the Wall. Pull yourself out of the fray for a short time and just listen.  Observe the negotiation process itself. Is there a healthy back-and-forth taking place? Is the group sticking to the ground rules?  (Do they even have any ground rules?) Are they really engaged in constructive dialogue? Look for one or two ways to improve the process – independent of the positions either side is taking in the negotiation. Before you jump back in, think carefully about how each side will perceive your process suggestions.

5. Shut Up & Write It Down: Sometimes the heat of negotiation gets so intense that the players spend more time planning their next comeback than they do listening. Consider having the negotiation team stop talking for a few minutes. Let the room grow silent and have them try writing down their most critical needs on paper using their own words. Have them describe their needs in simple enough language that their kids or a stranger on the street with no knowledge of the situation would understand.  Then give each side 5 minutes to have one person from their team read their thoughts back to the group. For full effect, don’t allow comments until everyone is done reading. This simplifying technique can help each side see the logic of the other group more clearly and reduce the level of demonizing that goes back and forth.

Summary: Change Agents are often brought into difficult situations where a negotiation between deadlocked teams needs to be resolved.  While Washington can show us plenty of techniques that don’t work, it’s up to Change Agents to look for ways that will work to break the log jam and move their groups forward.  In my next post, I will offer 5 more tips for this challenge.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What can you do as a facilitator if the two sides have become so bitter that they won’t even sit in the same room – let alone at the same table to negotiate?
  2. What can you do if there is no independent facilitator available to break a deadlock?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

2 Responses to “Breaking the Deadlock”

  1. Barbara Carkenord says:

    I like to look for common ground. What are the objectives we can all agree on and then start to understand where the disagreement lies. In US Politics it seems that if anyone acknowledges common ground it is considered a weakness but there are lots of things we all agree on: None of us want the country to go bankrupt, none of us want soldiers to die in unnecessary wars, none of us want our grandmothers to starve. Let’s start at the point we all agree and work toward solutions we can live with.

    • Steve says:

      Good points Barbara. I am especially struck by how often politicians talk about bringing common sense to the discussion when they are campaigning only to cave in to the culturally-embedded process when they join their caucus… Wouldn’t it be great if the folks we sent to Washington acted on your kind of common sense?

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.