The Negotiator Magazine

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I generally suggest that negotiators should begin with opening offers that are as far away from where they hope to end as they can - and which they can rationally defend. If they begin with wholly unrealistic positions, they lose credibility and undermine the likelihood they will achieve agreements. On the other hand, if they begin with positions which don't favor their own side, they place themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

One other reason for beginning with opening offers that favor one's own side concerns the use of "bracketing." Negotiators tend to move from their opening positions toward the center. If people can induce their opponents to articulate the opening position, they can respond with an initial offer that places their goal midway between the parties' opening positions. As the parties make reciprocal concessions, they can continue to use bracketing to keep their objective near the midpoint between their current positions. If they do this successfully, they can often achieve better deals than they could have obtained had they not begun with a position which placed their objective near the midpoint between the parties' opening offers.

III. Conclusion

Negotiators should always remember the importance of beneficial aspiration levels and the impact of anchoring. People who hope to achieve better deals tend to do so, while those with lower aspirations tend to generate less generous results. It thus behooves individuals preparing for bargaining interactions to establish high, but rationally defensible, goals. They should also appreciate the impact of anchoring. When they begin with high demands or low offers, they begin to undermine opponent confidence and induce those persons to question their preliminary assessments. On the other hand, when they begin with modest demands or overly generous offers, they embolden opponents and induce them to contemplate better deals than they preliminarily thought possible. If they can induce their opponents to articulate the first offer, they should use bracketing to keep their objective between the parties current positions. As the participants move toward the midpoint between their respective positions, this may enable them to achieve optimal results for their own side.

Persons who usually get everything they want when they negotiate should raise their aspiration levels. They must do this in increments to avoid future disasters. They should initially raise their goals by five or ten percent. If they continue to get most of what they want in the coming weeks, they should raise their goals by another five or ten percent. They should continue this practice until they begin to come up short. If they never feel disappointed at the end of their negotiations, they should recognize that they have probably failed to establish sufficiently elevated aspiration levels.

II. Impact of Anchoring

Many negotiation teachers instruct students to begin their interactions with reasonable positions that will induce their opponents to respond in kind. This win-win approach will enable the bargaining parties to achieve results that are fair to both sides. The difficulty with this advice is that is empirically false. The fact that one side has begun with a reasonable position does not force the other side to respond with a similarly realistic offer. In fact, manipulative opponents can use opportunistic behavior to seize the advantage. They can begin with a less generous offer and use strategic tactics to obtain better deals for themselves.

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October 2005