Deadlock is to dealmakers what cliffhangers are to TV couch potatoes. Frustrating yet compelling, impasses challenge each side's negotiating maturity, skill and acumen. In some ways, they're the ultimate test of how good you really are at the bargaining table.
While there's no single sure-fire way to bust a stalemate, here are a few techniques to consider the next time you think you're "stuck":
Take a timeout. Bona fide deadlock is stressful. Usually, there's a lot at stake, nerves are frayed, rapport is eroded and each side is anxious about the outcome. So start with the obvious. Take a walk, get a bite to eat or get some sleep. Everyone needs a break. It'll reduce the tension and help put things back in perspective.
Get creative. An impasse is a problem for both sides. For a moment at least, stop nagging, haranguing and cajoling your opponent. Transcend your own interests and pose this question instead: "What are all the possible ways we can solve this problem?" Then, brainstorm together. When each side tries to find a good solution to the other's problem, everyone's likely to come out a winner.
Slow down. It could soften the other side in two ways. First, they might take it as a signal that you're losing interest; they may relent just to keep you talking. Second, if your opponents have been concealing their own deadline, slowing down will make them nervous. There's a good chance they'll make concessions to get the deal done.
Crack a joke. In the 1950s, Ford Motor Co.'s senior management deadlocked over how to cut costs. The company had already shut down several plants, but its accountants demanded more. Executives met -- and stalemated. Their mood was as serious as a heart attack, until one of them joked, "Why don't we close down all the plants and then we'll really start to save money?" The room exploded with laughter. The impasse was broken.
Go up the ladder. Get to the actual decision-maker. Companies negotiate through a cadre of executives. An individual entrepreneur may use a lawyer or other professional. When talks bog down, ask the principals for input. If they're effective, they'll cut through the stalemate and get things moving again.
Change negotiators. Personality conflicts can thicken the air. Prolonged bargaining can wear anyone out. Repetitive discussions can give participants severe cases of myopia. Bring in some fresh blood. New participants have a much better chance of seeing the forest for the trees.
Set up a meeting. Any sizable deal (especially the big ones) will be hashed out by teams on each side. The more people involved, the greater the chance for disorganization and miscommunication. Put everyone in the same room and, hopefully, you'll put everyone on the same page.
Ask King Solomon. Bring in a third-party authority. It could be an expert with new information or a mediator to facilitate discussion. You can even appoint an arbitrator and give him or her the final word on the deal. In any case, new players usually bring new ideas and solutions.
Flip a coin. Well, maybe -- I've never tried it, but I don't see why not. It works well enough on the playing field. Perhaps there are times it can work just as well at the bargaining table!
Walk away. High-minded exhortations aside, negotiation is just a game of chicken, and deadlock is simply a tactic to make you flinch. If the deal isn't working, walk away. One of two things will happen: The other side will cave, or you'll be on to your next opportunity. Either way, you'll be better off.
A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size (Owl Books/Henry Holt). You can reach him at MarcDiener@aol.com.