Negotiation traps you better let other people fall into

When did your last negotiation take place? Last week? Last month? Last year?

You will probably remember a particular situation in which your opinion was quite obviously different from somebody else´s and you were making a conscious effort to convince the other person of your own opinion, of giving you what you wanted, or of any other desired outcome. However, in all likelihood, the many negotiations that you have engaged in over time are probably not at the top of your mind. Most people simply file these away in their minds as “conversations”, “disagreements” or “fights”.

Being more conscious of everyday negotiations and consequently applying basic negotiation concepts and tools will inevitably give you better outcomes – and may just result in better long-lasting relationships. Not doing so, by contrast, means that you may open yourself up to negotiation traps that you should rather let other people fall into.

Here are some of the most common negotiation mistakes that you should aim to avoid – in any and all situations where you are faced with individuals or groups wanting something different.

1. Winging it

Have you heard of the number one mission-critical success factor in real-estate investments? It is “Location. Location. Location”. If you get the location right, chances are your real-estate investment will be highly successful.

The equivalent to increasing your chances of success in negotiation is: “Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.” Too many people go into important negotiations in their life unprepared, reassuring themselves: “I´ll just get the best agreement I can”. The reason for this attitude is likely to be rooted in the “winner´s curse”, or a “self-serving bias”, on which I will elaborate later in this article.

Instead, make a commitment to yourself to prepare in a structured manner, including when negotiation may emerge spontaneously. Even in that case, you can still ask important questions to find out about the other person´s needs, while – on a different thought-level – consciously engaging in rapid mental preparation.

Part of this preparation (without going into too much detail) is establishing the following:

  • What is it that you/they really want?
  • What is your/their “Plan B” if the current negotiation fails (in technical negotiation terms: your BATNA/WATNA, or Best/Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement)? Knowing your/their BATNA will enable you to establish the strength of your negotiation position.
  • What exactly is your/their walk-away point (“reservation price”), or the point at which your/their BATNA will yield a better outcome for you/them? This “room” between opposing reservation prices will establish your “ZOPA” (Zone Of Possible Agreement).

  • What is your negotiation strategy – collaborative (“integrative”) or competitive (“positional”)?

2. Winner´s curse

Are you successful in life? In business? In negotiations? Congratulations!
Though, here is the twist: Your success in the past just may not be the warranty you need for the future. As Bill Gates said:

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people
into thinking they can´t lose.”


In very broad terms, this attitude is rooted in a “self-serving bias”, where confident people see themselves in a better light than objectively justified. This attitude will make them more vulnerable, more susceptible to mistakes in preparation and bargaining, with an increased risk of “leaving money on the table”.

If there is one quality you should practice so much that it becomes second nature to you– it is this: be humble, do the work – and never, ever, assume anything…

3. Compete

The third common trap is to be lured into competitiveness, which is likely to result in sub-optimal outcomes.

If you go through life looking at every situation and every person as “I want to win/I want you to lose”, you will inevitably overlook the potential for making the negotiation pie bigger. Only if and when you integrate both your and their real needs into the negotiation, especially the hidden needs, can you achieve the proverbial “win-win” outcome.


Watch out, for example, for the “but´s” you may use in a conversation or negotiation. Every “but” is an indication of you negating what the other person has just told you while insisting on your own position. That is the very definition of a positional strategy.

Instead, collaborate by looking for the common denominator of needs, listen attentively (and I mean: really listen, not just pretend to listen while you already prepare your next statement…) and guide yourself and the other person or group towards a mutually-satisfactory win-win.

4. Succumbing to emotion

Can people or situations push your emotional buttons easily — and not just during negotiations?

Whether you find yourself on the extroverted, assertive side of personality or on the introverted, more insecure side makes no difference in this context. Just make sure that you don´t allow yourself to be affected by self-limiting thoughts and feelings, resulting in sub-optimal reactions and decisions when faced with difficult people or situations.

When we become emotional, we typically enter into stress-reactions known as “fight, flight or freeze”. Whenever we are stressed, we no longer have 100% access to the rational part of our brain, because the brain´s limbic system will simply take over. Daniel Goleman very appropriately called this the “amygdala hijack” (D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence).

As a result, we may do or say irrational things. I’m sure you have witnessed angry people doing really stupid things, which they later regretted.

Therefore, remember that one of the most important success factors for negotiation, yet possibly one of the most difficult, is to stay calm, both on the outside and especially on the inside.

Instead, work on your self-awareness and self-control: know your personal triggers, be they rooted in your personality, your values, your experience, or culture), and find ways to self-correct.

Even when others are trying to push your buttons with provocations, positional tactics or behaviours that they know you hate, just notice that they are doing it, stay out of judgment – and protect your inner “zen”. In every situation, including those of apparent hopelessness, you always have alternatives and solutions – you may just have to look a little harder to find them.

Once you become aware of these possible traps and practice making better choices, you will have empowered yourself to step around and thus avoid very common traps.


Have fun watching other people fall into them.

Angelika Bergmann
Executive MBA, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University