The Long Haul

The Long Haul

Hostage negotiators start every negotiation as if it’s going to last for hours if not days. As a general rule, we have time on our side, because experience has shown that a hostage taker’s resolve tends to wear down as time goes on. There are dozens of reasons. Maybe the most important is the biological urge for preservation. Fanatics tend to get less fanatical as they grow older.

Of course, we can’t wait for a five-year-old to grow into a fifty-year-old. Simply being prepared for the long haul doesn’t necessarily mean that the negotiations will be successful. You should know going in what time constraints you have, if any. If it’s necessary to adjust your goals because of time—if you have to have a deal before the end of the week or you’re not eating—then time is part of your goal.

But the truth is: Usually, time isn’t important at all.

Say you have to have a deal during your visit to Chicago.

Really? The boss would tear it up if you did it over the phone at the airport on the way back?

If you’re going to buy a new car, does it really matter if you have it this week or next month? If the teachers’ contract expires at midnight July 1, what will happen?

For Real, And Not

Usually in hostage situations, deadlines are given by the subjects to make it look as if they’re coming from a position of power: “I’m going to kill two people at noon if you don’t have a car outside.” Many times the deadline is mentioned once, and then never comes up again.

Again, the most important tool for determining what is a real deadline, and what’s not, are a negotiator’s ears. Just as she does with demands, she has to listen to see if the subject focuses on the deadline by mentioning it again and again. Is the hostage taker dedicated to the deadline? Or has he totally forgotten about it?

I have to admit, there’s a bit of an art to that, since there’s no absolutes. If I feel that a subject is dedicated to the deadline and the negotiations are going nowhere, I tell the commander to get Plan B ready. In a hostage situation that means getting the tactical squad ready. In everyday negotiations, when the other side is dedicated to the deadline and you don’t have a basis for an agreement, then you do have to be ready for your out.

Reading The Other Side’s Deadline

In everyday negotiations, deadlines can tell you a lot about the other side’s positions. Of course, deadlines aren’t necessarily presented as deadlines. Sometimes they’re sweetened a bit so they look like incentives. You walk into the model of a condo development, and the saleswoman greets you at the door. “We’re having a special this month only,” she says. “If you buy before Monday, you’ll pay only $500,000.”

Aside from telling you that housing prices are way out of whack, the saleswoman has given you a price parameter—and one that extends beyond Monday. Now it’s possible that something really is going to happen on Monday that will change everything. And it’s also possible that someone else will buy the house in the meantime. But in that situation the customer really should ask himself what would happen if he showed up Tuesday morning with $500,000 in hand. Would he be turned away?

But let’s say the deadline is real, or at least a soft one, and your research shows that the saleswoman has an incentive to close a deal by Monday. You either do some sleuthing on your own, or the saleswoman keeps coming back to it again and again, which makes you ask why she wants to close that quickly.

And she tells you. Why wouldn’t she, if she wants to make the sale and the deadline is in fact real? Failing to answer is the same as admitting that the deadline isn’t real, which presumably she doesn’t want to do.

Her incentive may not be big—maybe she can’t stand this particular model and would like to be done with it. But in sales situations especially, managers often use time periods to motivate their staff: Sell so many widgets or condos by the end of the month and you get to go Hong Kong. More ominous for the salesman are the quotas: Sell so many widgets by the end of the month or you’re out of here. Quotas and artificial deadlines are especially popular in auto sales, where things like monthly finance charges can put pressure on management to move product.

So she owns the deadline. It’s her problem, something you can use to help her reach a successful resolution.

Like getting real and selling you that condo for a price a working man can afford.

Someone else’s deadline is just that—someone else’s deadline. Let it put pressure on the other side to deal. As the clock winds down, the other side will feel more and more pressure to settle. While you, of course, should be feeling no pressure at all.