Should negotiations be broken off?

Von Stefan Kühn

In business as well as in the private every day from time-to-time the question arises, whether negotiations should actually take place, or whether it would not save time and nerves, to abort the fruitless discussions in question. Difficult and supposedly futile situations can trigger off enormous amounts of stress. Wanting to withdraw from it is understandable. So, does aborting negotiations therefore make any sense? Where do the risks and opportunities arising from non-negotiations lie?

Even if this question is not answered here and now, one statement is certain: most people retreat too often and impetuously from negotiations and waste enormous opportunities in doing so. The decision, whether negotiations should be broken off, ignored or put on the back burner, needs to be well considered.

Before the decision is made whether to break off or not break off negotiations, two questions must be answered: how will the negotiations or discussions be aborted, and what will be the affects of aborting negotiations?

There are four fundamental reasons why parties in a negotiation withdraw consciously or unconsciously:

  • Emotions, indignation, or inability to handle conflict
  • Misjudgement of the situation
  • Tactics
  • Changing of strategic direction, new targets

I would like to enter into the first two points in more detail. In 45% of cases emotions are the most common reason for negotiation breakdown. We feel hurt and offended, we are frightened, upset or very angry and jealous etc. The list is long, although the most fundamental negative emotions – anger, fear and feeling violated – are top of the list. Breaking off negotiations due to emotions is mostly not sensible. Uncontrollable emotions rob us of the opportunity to see clearly. Most of the decisions arising from them are false, and in the best case foolish. Although as emotional beings we cannot switch off our feelings, we should not let ourselves be completely led by them. Generations of lingering conflicts have shown us how destructive and paralysing negative feelings can be. Often the active generation can no longer even remember or understand why companies, families, groups, regions or even entire countries cannot work better with one another, or are even enemies with each other. The events behind the original aborting of negotiations or conflict have long given way to unrestrained emotions. In this sense there are „must-do“ rules, which every good negotiator should have command of:

  • Never make decisions when under emotional stress
  • Take time to wisely analyse the situation
  • Always be aware that we do not know the intention of the opposing party (in our view the reasons behind our emotions). We only have the opportunity to experience them when we ask about them 
  • Be aware of the long-term consequences of their decision (for them and their environment)
  • Receive advice to gain greater objectivity

The second most common reason for a break down in negotiations is a misjudgement of the situation. In contrast to emotional decisions, negotiations based on misjudgement are made quite deliberately. In scarcely 40% of all cases parties decide to break off based on relatively strong cognitive distortions. To this belong prejudices, exaggerated self-opinion, over-optimism, control illusions and much more. A break down in negotiations of this type is just as unwise as a withdrawal based on emotions. Whoever wants to negotiate effectively and not blunder into the case of a misjudgement, should observe the following:

  • Carry out a realistic self-assessment: a person should be aware that there are also very good and perhaps even better management personnel, or in contrast that one should not underestimate themselves and put their abilities under scrutiny.
  • Expand knowledge: who believes to know everything about a business case or a particular negotiation, is completely misguided. Who decides blind on this basis, will make foolish decisions.
  • Correctly evaluate control: whoever believes to have absolute control or power, is not powerful, but naive.
  • Gather advice. If there is a lot going on and there are uncertainties with regards to a correct evaluation, a second opinion can be valuable.

Finally before a break in discussions the details should be put forward as to how significant the short and long-term consequences of a breakdown could be and whether or not this would be conducive to progress or cause more damage.

There could be good reasons why you may wish to break up negotiations next time. However, always think twice before doing anything.

About the author

Stefan Kühn
Negotiation expert

Stefan Kühn is a senior international negotiator, mediator and facilitator and experienced in high-risk and high-stakes negotiations in sensitive markets. He successfully conducts national and international multi-party negotiations and consults businesses, organizations and governmental bodies in demanding and conflicting situations. Stefan Kühn graduated from Harvard University and Oxford Saïd Business School and holds a Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution and an MBA.