Unlocking Successful Negotiations: How to Deal with Reluctant Parties

This article has been written with the help of Adam Frampton an Associate Partner at The Gap Partnership.

You may be familiar with the 12th century proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. In other words, you can give someone an opportunity, but you can’t make them take it.

Now let’s imagine you’re trying to engage with a commercial partner in order to discuss a conflictual but opportunistic part of a deal, but you can’t get the engagement you need. The other party just won’t come to the table. This predicament is one that has come up a lot, particularly of late where I’ve heard many clients talking about cost price increases, they are having to run due to rising costs.

You can provide someone with an opportunity, but you can’t force them to do something they don’t want to do. But are there things we can do to encourage the engagement we desire to help to push through the deal that has importance to us?

In a word, yes. There are, broadly, four areas to consider: power, trust, risk vs rewards, and stakeholders.

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In negotiation, power governs the value of everything. It can turn a conversation into a demand, or a demand into a conversation. It has the ability to shift the course of any negotiation. But power is never static and while there are many examples of “real” power moving mountains, in negotiation, it can come down to the counterparty’s perception of power. If they perceive that you are more desperate for them in the negotiation due to your behaviour, then that will be how that deal concludes – with the other party driving the narrative on their terms.

So how can we impact the perception of power? Well firstly we must believe it and live it. The first person you need to convince is yourself – that you are needed by your counterparty. From that point on you will start to try more challenging and value-creating conversations. You also need to act like it. I often say to clients, “Why do you think they feel that way? It’s as a result of your behaviour”. So you see, how your counterpart perceives your behaviour becomes their reality.


In many ways trust is thought of as an intangible measure, so how can you quantify how much trust you have in your partnership? As we begin to examine our commercial relationships, we can think about the scale of trust being like walking a tightrope with balancing buckets either side, one bucket represents the amount of trust you invest and the other the amount you withdraw.

When you examine the trust in your partnership, do you think that you invest highly in this trust bucket? Are you able to engender trust from your counterpart? Or you lured to believe that trust simply exists because of the romantic nature of partnerships?

If the trust paradigm exists as a tightrope, how do you maintain balance? There needs to be a stability between using this trust and offering this trust. In terms of negotiation, this means that to keep the stability of trust we have to offer it outside of the times we need it, which means we don’t just demand the use of this partnership when we need to conclude a deal. So, think about how you can engender trust throughout the time of your partnership for example by offering insights, commercial support, and outside the line of work support. There will be numerous ways in which we a relationship can be built.

Risk vs rewards

This is always an interesting part of any partnership. In our contracts, do we put into the terms and conditions what is at risk if they don’t come to the table (conclude the deal), or what will the rewards be if they do? To begin to consider the appropriate action here we need to truly understand the person sitting opposite us. This means getting inside their head: what are their drivers, their motivators? Are they driven by the need to achieve or are they driven by the need to avoid loss? If we continually throttle a counterparty who doesn’t come to the table with risks, and they’re unmotivated by it, you’ll end up losing their interest. So ask yourself, if you are struggling to get someone to the negotiation table, do you think you know what motivates them?


Mapping of stakeholders because an even more crucial part of negotiating in modern times due to the transient nature of business. Frequently your commercial contacts in one business may have moved on to another one. This affects a number of different parts of your relationship with the business in question, but in the area we are considering today, how could that impact your ability to negotiate with reluctant negotiators? Should we understand all the stakeholders in our counterparts – who sits where, who reports to who? What falls under each person’s role and responsibilities? Should they move on and not have an immediate replacement, who would step in to pick up their workloads? The exercise of mapping stakeholders can be painstakingly long, but the value you can derive from it will support you in your strategy planning, particularly if your negotiations are timebound.

In negotiation there will be times where you have a reluctant party you need to work with. But there are steps that you can take and areas that you can consider that should help you to encourage the engagement you need.

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