Renegotiate Commitments Without Letting People Down

Deep into a negotiation, you realize an issue you fought hard for no longer suits your interests. What should you do now?

You are deep into a negotiation, and after weeks of back and forth, you are finally close to a deal. But when you check in with your organization, you determine that a specific issue you fought for no longer suits your organization’s best interests. Now what? Your reputation is on the line because you made a commitment to your negotiation counterpart that you may not be able to uphold. How do you change your position in a negotiation without losing ground or face?

Belarus is walking this fine line with Russia as it seeks lower gas prices amid ongoing negotiations. Whether at the outset of negotiations or during a change of course, the skilled negotiator can strengthen an argument by providing objective criteria. Belarus, for example, has been in negotiations with Russia for the past four years, and the price of oil has fluctuated from as high as over $100 per barrel to under $50. When negotiating in a volatile environment it is essential that objective criteria—in this case, the price of crude oil—be used as a basis for joint decisions.

If objective criteria alone are not enough, especially in light of new information or reassessment, the skilled negotiator can face the problem head on. Instead of trying to talk your counterpart down a new negotiating path, consider being frank and posing the situation as a joint problem to be solved. For example, by explaining how your situation has changed—less funding is available than anticipated, your boss wants to pursue a new option, etc.—you can work with your counterpart, rather than around them. Ask your negotiation counterpart for help and be transparent about why your interests have changed. In this way, you can reaffirm your commitment to the negotiations and build greater trust without risking the relationship or sacrificing your interests.

Lecturer on Government, Harvard University

Arvid Bell is a scholar and entrepreneur who specializes in negotiation strategy, crisis leadership, and international security.