It is useful to summarize an array of tactics that negotiating parties can enjoy. Some tactics are used to promote constructive outcomes, while others are intended to obstruct or delay negotiations or increase a party’s relative gains in negotiating contexts that are traditionally viewed as zero sum. The boundaries between constructive and obstructive tactics are not always clear, and can depend on the interests and preferences of both the user and the perceiver. Depending on a negotiator’s intention and the circumstances of the interaction, a particular demand or action — calling for an inquiry, for example — can either be used as a delaying tactic or as a constructive cognitive tactic aimed at unpacking difficult issues in order to facilitate convergence through shared understanding.

Obstructive Tactics

  • to obstruct negotiations

To obstruct negotiations, strategies of delay, defection and concealment are employed. These are frequently seen in the prenegotiation phase and also as negotiations approach their endgame. Johann Kaufmann identified three kinds of delaying tactics, which he called “waiting for Godot”, “quicksand” and “ping-pong”. In waiting for Godot, a negotiator continually insists that the time for something is not yet ripe, while impeding all attempts by others to create more positive conditions. Quicksand is the tactic of bogging down a proposal or initiative in questions, objections or demands for definitions, or by insisting on an inquiry or further consultations. Ping-pong is the apt name Kaufmann gave to the oft-used tactic of getting an initiative or issue referred to another committee, forum or authority and then to keep on shunting it between different bodies for as long as possible.

  • concealment tactics

To conceal their real objectives, intentions or interests, parties may employ a variety of techniques. Concealment tactics are often used by weak parties that disagree with their instructions or corporate policy, which is more common than might be admitted. Frequently observed examples of concealment tactics are characterized here as “hide and seek”, “slipstreaming”, “fronting” and “faking”. The hide-and-seek tactic is a perennial favourite, in which negotiators mask their real objectives with high-sounding rhetoric or a mass of technical data and extraneous detail. When slipstreaming, a person will maintain a low profile or keep quiet about their preferences and allow another person that holds the same position to engage more openly (and, if necessary, take the brunt of any criticism). Parties in whose wake a slipstreamer is concealing its positions may or may not be aware that they are assisting in this way. By contrast, fronting is a collaborative form of slipstreaming, in which one party deliberately leads on an argument or position knowing that others will benefit by following in its wake. In some but not all cases, the fronting party may adopt a position that is stronger than its own interests would require in order to assist those slipstreaming in its wake. In general, the fronting party is the stronger, but there are notable exceptions. A less powerful ally will sometimes front for a stronger negotiator in situations where that party does not wish to be exposed. Similar to a practice identifie as “two-faced”, faking is the tactic of pretending to support a proposal that you actually oppose, or vice versa. It may also involve manipulating another party to take the lead in advocating or opposing a position, leaving them to bear any criticisms or penalties if the position fails. As is sometimes the case in slipstreaming, faking is deployed by those who want to keep favour with allies or dominant business partners, or by those who know their positions would attract internal or external criticism if made public.

  • to obstruct an agreement

The third category of tactics covers obstruction of agreement through linkage and defection. With the general aim of providing grounds for pulling out of any agreements that might be reached, two common defection tactics are “moving the goalposts”, in which agreement is rendered more inaccessible by altering objectives if it begins to seem as though the previously established objectives will be achieved, and “best versus good”, in which a remote or unobtainable ideal is persistently evoked to prevent agreement on a more practical, achievable measure. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether a party genuinely desires a more radical solution or is deploying best-versus-good tactics for the purposes of obstruction or defection. One basis for judgement would be the degree to which a government actively works toward achieving the “best” outcome or merely evokes it in criticism every time it appears as if the “good” alternative might be achieved.

Another way to obstruct a decision or prepare the ground for defecting is by invoking the “all or nothing” demand. This is closely related to the linkage tactics that tie progress on agreement on one issue with agreement or gains on another issue. The hallmark of the all-or-nothing tactic is the frequently heard mantra “nothing to be agreed until everything is agreed”. This phrase is deployed in multilateral negotiations to ensure that a party’s core objectives cannot be dropped or sidelined once the dominant negotiators have got what they want. As such, it may reflect not an intention to obstruct the negotiations as such, but an assertion of a business objective that outweighs the perceived gains of agreement in a particular context.

Constructive Tactics

Linkage is a double-bladed tactic that may be used for positive reasons but which frequently contributes to deadlock. Linkages prevent negotiations being started on one issue until there is agreement to work on or omit some other, which may or may not be related. A dominant party may be accused of “hostage-taking” after its representatives insist that not winning on its positions would be a “treaty-breaker”. “Tit for tat” is the name given to a further linkage tactic, in which an actor will thwart the plans of another in retaliation for a real or imagined offence. Because tit-for-tat reprisals tend not to be issue-based in origin, the tactic is associated more with rivalries and negative dynamics among negotiating parties than with substantive disagreements. Such tactics may backfire on the user.

Linkage can also contribute to agreement, for example through bridging strategies and concession trading. Concession trading is a very familiar bargaining process in which allowances are made on one issue to win compromises on another, even if the issues are not related substantively. Other bridging tactics include “mediation”, in which underlying causes of disagreement are addressed; “bridge-building”, in which demands and positions are modified or conceded for the sake of agreement; and “third-party bridging”, in which a broker — for example, a third party — facilitates agreement by exploring solutions somewhere between the extremes, perhaps by identifying and fostering concessions that bring antagonistic parties closer together.

Among tactics used to facilitate cognitive strategies are “step-ladder”, where new insights are introduced to enable parties to surmount obstacles or at least to perceive them differently, and “unpacking”, in which complex issues are disaggregated and then resolved incrementally. Cognitive strategies may be pursued with new technical information, projections or data highlighting the probable consequences of particular choices, psychological and cultural insights, or a mixture of some or all of these components.