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Book Summary: Negotiating The Impossible

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

In his 2016 book, Negotiating the Impossible, Deepak Malhotra (a member of the Negotiation faculty at Harvard Business School) draws on lessons learned from several US-centric stories and case studies to dispel the myth that great negotiators can only be successful if they wield “money or muscle” to influence or persuade their counterparts. By contrast, he makes a very compelling argument that the best negotiators tend to ignore money and muscle completely, and instead leverage three levers – framing, process, and empathy – to create successful outcomes in any type of negotiation.


The book contains 19 Chapters that are divided into 3 Sections. They are:

Part I: The Power of Framing

  • Chapter 1: The Power of Framing (Negotiating in the NFL)

  • Chapter 2: Leveraging the Power of Framing (Stalemate over Royalty Rates)

  • Chapter 3: The Logic of Appropriateness (Negotiating in the Shadow of Cancer)

  • Chapter 4: Strategic Ambiguity (US – India Civil Nuclear Agreement)

  • Chapter 5: The Limits of Framing (Charting a Path to War in Iraq)

  • Chapter 6: First-Mover Advantage (The Unbroken Peace Treaty)

Part II: The Power of Process

  • Chapter 7: The Power of Process (Negotiating the US Constitution)

  • Chapter 8: Leveraging the Power of Process (Reneging on a $10 Million Handshake)

  • Chapter 9: Preserve forward Momentum (Strikes and Lockouts in the NHL)

  • Chapter 10: Stay at the Table (Peacemaking from Vienna to Paris)

  • Chapter 11: The Limits of Process (Trying to End the Vietnam War)

  • Chapter 12: Changing the Rules of Engagement (Negotiating with Your Friends)

Part III: The Power of Empathy

  • Chapter 13: The Power of Empathy (Negotiating the Cuban Missile Crisis)

  • Chapter 14: Leveraging the Power of Empathy (Deal Making with a Gun to Our Head)

  • Chapter 15: Yielding (Selling Modernity in Saudi Arabia)

  • Chapter 16: Map Out the Negotiation Space (Negotiating the Louisiana Purchase)

  • Chapter 17: Partners, Not Opponents (Caught in the Crossfire)

  • Chapter 18: Compare the Maps (Lessons in Cartography and Linguistics)

  • Chapter 19: The Path Forward


Part I: Framing

Synopsis: Effective negotiators know that how you articulate or structure your proposals can be as important as what you are proposing.

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” –Tom Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie

Key Takeaways:

  • Control the frame of the negotiation. The frame that takes hold will shape how negotiators make decisions, evaluate options, and decide what is acceptable.

  • Convincing the other party that they will have to concede or withdraw from initial positions is not enough. You have to make it easier for them to back down from strong positions.

  • Negotiate style and structure, not just substance. Wise concessions on style and structure can help solve a problem more cheaply than costly concessions on substance

  • Pay attention to the optics of the deal. How will the deal look to the other side’s audience?

  • Help the other side sell the deal to their audience. Think about how the other side will sell the deal, and frame the proposal with their audience in mind.

  • Make it safe for the other side to ask for help on optics. Build a reputation for rewarding transparency and not exploiting their moments of weakness.

  • Avoid one-issue negotiations. Add issues or link separate one-issue negotiations to avoid stalling out over a single divisive issue.

  • Negotiate multiple issues simultaneously (not sequentially) to help identify wise trades and to reduce the risk that concessions will not be reciprocated.

  • Diffuse the spotlight so one issue become too prominent. Educate your audiences about how to measure success, and limit the amount of attention given to any one issue.

  • If there is only one issue, try splitting it into two or more separate issues.

  • Unmask the underlying interests: Incompatible positions might be hiding reconcilable underlying interests. Understanding why the other side wants something can lead to better outcomes than continuing to argue over competing demands or trying to meet in the middle.

  • Firm on substance, flexible on structure: I know where I need to get, I’m flexible on how I get there.

  • Getting unstuck is a worthy enough short-term goal: A wisely framed proposal need not resolve the entire dispute. Sometimes just getting unstuck is the key to paving the path towards eventual agreement.

  • The logic of appropriateness tells us that many of the choices people make are based on how they answer one simple question: What does a person like me do in a situation like this?

  • Leverage social proof to boost the appropriateness of your proposal.

  • Framing an option as unique might make it more intriguing but less attractive. Uniqueness can be a double-edged sword.

  • Frame your proposal as the default option to boost its appropriateness.

  • The party that drafts the initial version of the agreement or process gains leverage.

  • Establish a proper reference point. Even generous proposals can be evaluated negatively if the other side’s reference point is not set appropriately.

  • Always justify your offer, but don’t apologize for it.

Part II: The Power of Process

Synopsis: Negotiating the process astutely can be more important than bargaining hard on the substance of the deal.

“The good news is, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is, there is no tunnel.” -Shimon Peres

Key Takeaways:

  • Have a process strategy: how will you get from where you are today to where you want to be? Consider the factors that influence whether, when and how substantive negotiations will occur.

  • Don’t just strategize the negotiation process; strategize the implementation process. What will be required for successful implementation? How will you garner sufficient support for the deal? How will you ensure ratification?

  • Be the most prepared person in the room. Know the facts, anticipate the arguments, and understand your weaknesses.

  • Negotiate process before substance. Understand and influence the process before diving too deeply into substantive discussions or concession making.

  • Misalignment on process can derail deals. Synchronize with the other side on process.

  • Even if you cannot influence the process, seek to get as much clarity and commitment on it as possible.

  • Normalize the process and encourage others to normalize it for you. If other parties know what to expect, they are less likely to overreact to or overweight the significance of doubts, delays, and disruptions.

  • Even the other side’s refusal to clarify or commit to process is informative.

  • Seek commitments that are explicit, unambiguous, public, and personal.

  • Before walking away due to a process breach, assess the other side’s perspective, evaluate all consequences, and suggest viable remedies. Consider: (a) whether the other side considers it a breach, (b) how much each side loses, (c) how you will justify walking away, (d) whether they know how to remedy it, and (e) how they can do so without losing face.

  • Commitment to a rigid process is not always possible or advisable. If the process is flexible, make sure all parties understand the degree to which there is commitment.

  • Preserve forward momentum. How will pursuing near-term advantage affect our ability to negotiate productively in the future?

  • Consensus deals can be shortsighted. Consensus has merits, but it gives everyone veto power and reduces the likelihood of agreement.

  • Sufficient consensus helps preserve momentum and limits hostage-taking on individual issues.

  • Keep a low bar for progress on individual elements of the deal, but a high bar for approving the final agreement.

  • The principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” can help overcome paralysis by allowing people to make concessions safely.

  • Transparency can stifle progress. Give negotiators the privacy they need to structure the deal; give constituents the right to decide whether the deal is acceptable.

  • Even after successful negotiations, create channels and processes to manage residual and latent conflict.

  • Stay at the table, especially after failed negotiations, to sustain relationships, understand the other side’s perspective, and look for opportunities to reengage.

  • If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.

  • When you are not at the table, get leverage by helping sell the deal or by creating value elsewhere.

  • Beware the tendency, especially during times of peace, to underinvest in processes and institutions that can help maintain relationships and sustain the peace.

  • We get stuck on process because of inadequate preparation, wanting a perfect process, or wanting too much flexibility.

  • To get unstuck, agree to a process that can be revised, or start negotiating substance in parallel with process.

  • Process negotiations can become proxy wars for leverage and legitimacy, especially when power relations are not clear.

  • Resisting unfair demands on matters of substance is easier if you earlier pushed back on unfairness in process.

  • When standing firm on principle, seek equality, not advantage, and address any substantive concerns that are affected by your stance.

  • Be the first mover in establishing the right process: shape the terms of future engagement.

  • Your willingness to incur up-front costs in support of the process sends a credible signal of your commitment to it.

  • Label your concessions. Even genuine acts of kindness and wisdom can be interpreted as weakness or incompetence. Shape the attributions others will make of your behavior to ensure that you encourage reciprocity rather than exploitation.

  • If a destructive pattern is entrenched, label your future concessions.

  • Credibility is usually lost a little at a time. Safeguard your credibility by following through on your commitments, even the small ones. There will come a time when your only source of leverage in the negotiation will be your credibility.

Part III: The Power of Empathy

Synopsis: A dispassionate and methodical approach to understanding the real interests and perspective of all relevant players can help to resolve even the ugliest of conflicts.

“Understanding, I think, is the most important thing when you are dealing with people – any people. You have got to make the effort to understand even the un-understandable.” -Lakhdar Brahimi

Key Takeaways:

  • Empathy expands the set of options you have for resolving the conflict. The better you understand the other side's perspective, the more likely you are to find a solution.

  • Empathy is needed most with people who seem to deserve it least. The more intolerable their behavior, the greater the potential benefit of understanding it.

  • Create slack. your calculus for when to retaliate or escalate should accommodate mistakes and misunderstanding.

  • There is a tradeoff between maintaining strategic flexibility and safeguarding credibility.

  • Don't corner yourself with unwise or unnecessary ultimatums and threats.

  • Don't force the other side to choose between smart decisions and saving face.

  • Beware the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, we lose the ability to understand what it feels like not to know it.

  • Don't just prepare your arguments, prepare your audience for your arguments.

  • Consider all potential explanations for the other side's behavior. Do not start by assuming incompetence or ill intent.

  • Identify all barriers that may obstruct deal-making: psychological, structural, and tactical.

  • Work the whole body: target all barriers; approach the problem from all directions; use all levers at your disposal.

  • Ignore ultimatums. The more attention you give to them, the harder it will be for the other side to back down if the situation changes.

  • Reframe ultimatums. By rephrasing ultimatums using less rigid language, you make it easier for the other side to back down later.

  • What is not negotiable today may be negotiable tomorrow. Think about how to shape incentives and options for all sides to make future attempts at negotiation more successful.

  • Yielding means “going with,” not “giving in.” Understand, adopt, and repurpose the other side’s perspective to advance your position.

  • Competing perspectives can be bridged if (a) one side can adopt the other’s frame without sacrificing their ability to articulate key demands, or (b) both sides can agree to a new frame that gives neither an advantage.

  • Yielding to the other party’s frame or perspective might enhance your leverage.

  • If necessary, give up control over proposing the solution – but clarify the conditions the other side must meet.

  • Think trilaterally: evaluate how third parties influence or alter the interests, constraints, and alternatives of those at the table.

  • Map out the negotiation space. Your strategy should take into account all parties who can influence the deal or who are influenced by the deal.

  • ICAP Analysis: What are the interests, constraints, alternatives, and perspective of all parties in the negotiation space?

ICAP Analysis

Interests: The better you understand their interests, the more likely you will be able to structure deals that create value for all parties, and to overcome deadlock. Constraints: Understanding constraints is important because there will be times when even the concessions you deserve will not be possible to obtain because the other side's hands are truly tide in those areas. In such cases, you will be more likely to achieve your objectives if you know what is and is not achievable, and which type of deal structure is actually viable. Alternatives: The more carefully you have assessed their alternatives, the better you understand the value you are bringing to the table, and the leverage that you have. Perspective: When you understand the perspective – psychological, cultural, or organizational - with which they are approaching this deal, you are better positioned to anticipate the types of barriers that might emerge. you are also more likely to take the steps that can help reshape their perspective to one that may be more amenable to effective and productive deal making.

  • Your analysis and approach should take into account the static, dynamic, and strategic possibilities of leveraging third parties.

Static Assessment: How does the existence of third parties influence the interests, constraints, alternatives, and perspectives of all parties in the negotiation? Dynamic Assessment: How is third-party influence changing over time? That is, are the other side's alternatives improving or worsening? Are constraints tightening or loosening? Are interests evolving? Strategic Assessment: How might we engage with third parties to influence the negotiation? Might they be willing to put pressure on the other side? Might they agree to subsidise the deal? Would doing a deal with a third party change the power dynamics in our favor?

  • Prepare for good fortune. Be psychologically, organizationally, and politically prepared in case a window of opportunity opens for deal making or diplomacy.

  • When there is no possibility of reaching a deal today, prepare for future opportunities with moves that improve positioning and create option value.

  • Don’t pick a winning strategy too soon. Keep your options open and be prepared to change course. "This reflects what psychologists have called the confirmation bias. because people want to be able to devote their enthusiasm an entire attention to one approach, and to start implementing it, they no longer evaluate all options as fairly or comprehensively as they should."

  • See the other side is your partner, not your opponent. It is hard to empathize or collaborate with “opponents.”

  • Focus on creating value, no matter how ugly the conflict. Start by asking: What would be the value-maximizing outcome? Are there ways to create value?

  • Ask people to “Imagine a world where this would be possible. Now paint me a picture.”

  • Understand the deep-seated forces that legitimize each side's perspective and behavior.

  • Understand what is sacred to the other side and avoid asking for it as a precondition to engagement. They might agree to negotiate what was once nonnegotiable, but only if they see a credible path to resolving the conflict or achieving vital objectives.

  • History begins at different times for different people. The dates that register on our calendars are typically those that mark our victories and victimizations.

  • Don’t ask people to forget the past – encourage them to find value-creating ways to apply its lessons.

  • Never let fear dictate your response to the problems of human interaction. "Time and again we have seen that neither caution nor courage alone provides sound basis for human interaction. Both are needed. Engagement does not guarantee success in the short run, but a failure to engage almost always prolongs and worsens conflict."

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