Clarifying Your Needs in a Negotiation: the Power of the BATNA

You feel vulnerable. You don’t totally trust the other party in a negotiation. What can you do to make the situation less unnerving?

Strategies abound. But one of the most interesting ideas is surprisingly simple. Technically speaking, it’s known as the BATNA, short for “Best Alternative to Negotiated Arrangement”.

Authors Roger Fisher and William Ury coined the term in their 1981 bestseller, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In. The idea is that you establish a line in the sand to know how hard to push. What if negotiations break down, and you can’t get what you need? What’s in your back pocket? By clarifying your Plan B prior to negotiating, you gain an advantage. You can make an apples-to-apples comparison between whatever offer they put on the table and your BATNA.

It’s also useful to clarify—or at least make a best guess at—your partner’s BATNA. What will the other person lose by walking away from you? And what’s his best fallback option?

The Harvard Law School blog explains the advantage of this strategy:

Understanding a BATNA… can generate creative solutions to overcome impasse and arrive at a negotiated agreement.

Knowledge of a counterpart’s BATNA requires a negotiator to understand her counterpart’s interests and motivations on some level. This process in turn may lead the negotiator to think of agreements that more readily satisfy each side’s interests.

Knowledge Is Power

Thousands of years ago, Sun Tzu observed the following about human conflict: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
Now, negotiation isn’t battle. And it’s not necessarily helpful to see your counterpart in adversarial terms. But Sun Tzu’s principle makes sense. Whether you’re chatting about the kids’ camp schedule with a friendly ex-husband or prepping for a grueling formal mediation, take a beat. Clarify your needs. How will you meet them if your negotiating partner disappoints you? Clarify his needs. What does he want? What will he do if he can’t come to an agreement with you?

This foreknowledge will make you flexible and inspire creativity. It’s an amazing tool with diverse applications in all of life.

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