The importance of time in a negotiation

Let’s take a simple example. Let’s suppose an employee wants to ask his boss for a raise. He makes an appointment and he is told that he can present his request the next day at 9:00 AM and that the meeting can not be longer than one hour, due to other business that needs the employer’s full attention. If concessions will be made, when do you think will this happen? 9:05? 9:30? 9:45? Well, in general it will be around 9:55! Why? Because that is the way negotiation works : each party tries to impose its own view and holds its ground for as much as possible, but when the deadline comes, all negotiation players know that if they do not make steps towards a common ground, an agreement will not be reached to the disadvantage of both parties. That is why towards the end of a meeting, concessions start to appear.

We can find this pattern everywhere: the laws are approved just before the end of a parliament session, the bills and debts are usually paid just before deadline, the budget for a big project is approved just before the end of the board meeting. Having that in mind, if two people are negotiating and one of them knows the deadline of the other, can that be considered as a big advantage? Absolutely! And that is because the player that has the time knowledge can remain relaxed and flexible while the other one will become increasingly more stressed out knowing the opportunity window is closing.

Herb Cohen exemplifies this very well in his book, “You can negotiate anything”. A long time ago, after many requests, a young Herb was given the chance to prove himself by going to Japan to negotiate an agreement on behalf of the company he worked for. He was pleasantly greeted upon arrival, the hosts even came with a limo to take him from the airport and he received all the finest treats. They even asked him when he is due to return home, so that they can “take him back to the airport with the same cool limo” and he divulged the most sensitive information: he has tickets for the way back in 14 days.

During the next 12 days, his hosts entertained him in the most curious ways, with trips to the imperial palace, Zen courses in English, golf games and long suppers. Each time Herb asked to start the negotiations, the response was “There is still time”. In the 12th day negotiations began, but they were cut short in favor of some golf games. In the 14th day, when  the negotiation reached the critical point, the limo came to take Stephen to the airport, and to make sure he will catch his flight, the negotiations followed in the limo. After returning home, his bosses referred to the negotiation as “The first japanese victory since Pearl Harbour”.

Another example can be the Paris negotiations between the North Vietnamese and the United States. The USA staff stayed in a hotel with weekly payments and the vietnamese rented a house just outside Paris for 2 and a half years! Chances are, that kind of attitude helped the vietnamese in getting a better deal.

One thing to always keep in mind is that everyone has deadlines in a negotiation. Some can hide it better than others, but that does not mean that the ones that look the most relaxed are not the ones with the least time at their disposal. Time limits are also subject to negotiations: you go into a negotiation knowing that you must realize something before a certain moment in time, but who was the one who set that limit? Is it a deadline you imposed upon yourself or was it negotiated by others? Do not be afraid to think outside the box: what would happen if you disrespect that time limit? Can you win something from that? Is your deadline more important than using more time to seal the deal? Sometimes a sudden change in strategy can confuse the opposing party and bring you some advantage.

To summarize:

  • Since any concession or accord tends to be made as the deadline approaches, have patience. Sometimes, true power stands in the ability to maintain a certain tension without giving up. Always stay calm and cool but be ready to act when a good opportunity arises. The best advice can be summarized like this: When you do not know what to do, do nothing!
  • In a negotiation, making your deadline known to the enemy is a grave mistake. Also, do not forget that your own time limit is the result of a negotiation and you must weigh-in the advantages and disadvantages of not respecting it.
  • You can be 100% certain that the other side has a deadline too. Often times, the ones who try to appear more relaxed are under a lot of time-related stress.
  • You should act without thinking too much only when this plays in your advantage. In general, the best results are obtained after a long period of thinking in which you analyzed any possible scenario. Remember that during a negotiation people do not change that much, but circumstances do, so always be ready for power shifts and creative solutions towards the end of a negotiation.

Stay tuned for the next article in which we will discuss the second important pillar of a negotiation, information.