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Crossing the Final Gap
John H. Wade
Editors’ Note: It’s three o’clock in the morning. You’ve been negotiating or mediating since 9 a.m. and everybody is exhausted. Each side has made more concessions that it really thinks it should have had to, and the gap between the parties has narrowed to millimeters. But there it has stuck, and will stay stuck unless you do something new. Every sophisticated negotiator or experienced mediator has a personal answer to this problem, a private stock of a few gambits, often tried and sometimes successful. But John Wade has the longest list we have ever seen, 16 techniques in all. Not one of them works all the time, but together they can materially improve your batting average.
What is the last gap in a negotiation? It is the last step necessary to reach an agreement between the negotiating parties. Often that last gap or last increment emerges after long and exhausting negotiations which have led to agreement on all issues but one. For example, that one issue may be: who gets the grandfather clock? How should the last 10% of the pool of assets be divided? How should the outstanding credit card debt be paid? How to cross the difference of $600 or $1 million in the parties’ “final” offers? Will the lease have a five year renewal option attached?
Most lawyers and business people can relate horror stories with humor and/or anguish about clients becoming stuck on the last issue of a lengthy negotiation. Some lawyers can tell how they themselves have offered to write a check to cover the last gap in order to help disputants end the drawn out negotiations, and almost invariably the disputants refuse the offer “as a matter of principle.”
The Importance of the Last Gap
Why does the last increment or last issue assume such importance and so often (anecdotally) provide a stumbling block to a negotiated settlement? There are a number of possible explanations, which include:
■ The last dance—Negotiations are often compared to a dance, where one or more parties circle each other apparently reluctant to end the process or relationship. The most clinging form of the last dance is sometimes referred to as “negative intimacy,” where one or more of the parties find meaning to life in the ongoing conflict. No matter how satisfactory is the emerging deal, such intimacy leads to the ubiquitous add-on—“there is one more thing I want to raise—“.
■ Unfinished emotional business—Commercial “common sense” sometimes does not prevail at the last gap as one or more parties have a deep hurt or loss which has not been acknowledged or “resolved.”
■ The last straw—“I have given up so much already”—A common method of negotiation is for each party to open with extreme claims and then gradually make small moves toward a settlement between those extremes. This process often leaves one or both parties with an increasing sense of “loss” and anger.
■ Sense of having been tricked—When the last gap is reached, the party who opened with what they perceived to be a “reasonable” offer, often feels tricked as the bargaining range has been dragged towards the person who started with an extreme or “unreasonable” offer.
■ Skilled helpers attempt to prove worth—Sometimes lawyers (or union officials, etc.) negotiate aggressively about the last gap as a form of theater to justify the fees they will be demanding from their already disappointed clients.
■ Recriminations for lost time and money—Sometimes the last gap triggers anger, as the negotiator realizes that he could have settled for the same amount two years earlier. Instead, he has invested two years of time and money to achieve “nothing.”
How to Cross the Last Gap in Negotiations
What strategies are available to cross this hurdle in negotiations or mediation? One aspect of an adviser’s role is to be an expert in the dynamics of negotiation and to educate the disputants concerning these dynamics. Parties can then have some confidence, even though they may feel in the wilderness, that there are well trodden paths which they have some power to choose between. A negotiator can give information concerning the range of options which are available. What follows is a list of options on how to cross the last gap....
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