How to Break a Deadlock in Negotiation


Does the idea of a deadlock during the negotiation process fill you with dread?

You’re not the only one. Deadlock can be extremely frustrating. You can see the deal, but it’s just out of reach and you’re forced to throw more time and resources into trying to circumnavigate the problem. Not only can it be costly to both parties, but it can also be emotionally draining.

The best way to manage deadlock is to avoid it in the first place, which is where thorough preparation and skills like active listening and empathy come in. However, sometimes, through no fault of your own, you’ll find yourself in a stalemate. So, what can you do to move forwards if you hit a deadlock?

Take a look at our hints and tips for breaking a deadlock in negotiation effectively.


What is a Deadlock in Negotiation?

A deadlock occurs when no one is prepared to concede and negotiating parties cannot reach an agreement.

You could be at loggerheads over a few remaining conditions or, even more maddeningly, a single point. Sometimes you may not be able to move forwards as one or more sides don’t have the authority to make a decision. In other cases, your fellow negotiator may be playing hardball and deliberately forcing a deadlock.

Whatever’s causing the impasse, it can seem like nothing will get the dialogue flowing again.


How to Break a Deadlock

The key to breaking deadlock in negotiation is to focus on the collective goal – to identify and agree on a “win-win” outcome. That’s often easier said than done, particularly when emotions are running high.


Take a Break

The benefits of taking regular breaks at work have been touted for many years and include improved focus. A 2011 study into the nature of attention suggested that when faced with a prolonged task, taking brief breaks to divert your attention could help you to stay focused on your task (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

By extension, taking a break from a heated negotiation can give all participants the headspace to consider the information on the table. Everyone will have the opportunity to consider their position and can return to the discussions feeling fresh, focused, and more cooperative.


Reframe Your Offer

When time is of the essence, it can be tempting to enter a negotiation with all guns blazing. Imagine, your counterpart puts their proposal on the table for consideration, but it falls short of your expectations. Understandably, you want to lay out your counter-demands as quickly as possible.

The problem is that if you immediately reject the other party’s proposition and push forwards with your own, you’ll get their back up – especially, if you’ve positioned your proposal as an ultimatum. Additionally, if you lay down a “final offer”, you’ll close the door to any further conversation.

Rather than present a counterproposal, put your active listening skills to good use. Read between the lines to understand their interests. Summarize what’s been said to show you’ve been paying attention, and ask clarifying questions to help you understand exactly where they’re coming from.

By reframing your offer in terms of their needs, you’re more likely to engage your co-negotiator and create a positive, collaborative environment to move forwards.


Problem Solve

Coming to an agreement is much easier if parties collaborate. If you regard a deadlock as a problem to solve jointly, you may find that you come up with a more creative alternative.

Step into your co-negotiator’s shoes and you’ll begin to understand what motivates them. Relaying their interests demonstrates empathy and reminds them of the common goal to reach an agreement.

Problem-solving together indicates a “can-do” attitude, encouraging everyone to break through the stagnation and get the discussion moving again.


Find Common Ground

If you view negotiation as a war that you must win at all costs, then deadlock is inevitable. You’re more focused on your own desires and consequently, less willing to compromise.

Seeking common ground can re-establish a relationship, particularly if communication has broken down. A reminder of a shared history, a common desire, or a joint sense of responsibility can be enough to pull the focus from the disagreements and instead refocus attention on the end objective.


In Short

Remembering that the negotiating party is human can help you to empathize and recognize their feelings. Deadlock can be resolved constructively by adopting techniques such as establishing common ground or reframing your offer. Such negotiating approaches can help get fellow negotiators back onside and get the ball rolling again.

For negotiation trainingget in contact with Scotwork.