Strategic Choice in Negotiation
By Dean Pruitt
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Dean Pruitt, "Strategic Choice in Negotiation," in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp.27-46.
Pruitt discusses four basic negotiation strategies, factors which affect the choice of strategy, and how the choice of strategy affects the negotiation's outcome.
There are four basic negotiation strategies. They are: problem solving, contending, yielding , and inaction. Problem solving seeks to reconcile the parties' aspirations. Problem solving tactics include increasing available resources, compensation, exchanging concessions on low priority issues, minimizing the costs of concessions, and creating new mutually beneficial options. The advantage of problem solving strategies is that they yield the, best outcomes. Mutually beneficial outcomes are more likely to last, to improve the parties relationship, and to benefit the wider society. Problem solving outcomes are likely to benefit both parties when the situation has high integrative potential and both parties have reasonably high aspirations. In addition parties must be firm about their aspirations or goals, but must be flexible regarding the means used to reach those goals. The risk of problem solving strategies is that they may backfire if the other side pursues a contentious strategy.
Contention seeks to persuade the other party to agree to a solution that favors one's own interests. This strategy has also been called positional bargaining. Contentious tactics include inflated demands, irrevocable commitments, persuasion, and threats. Contentious strategies alone tend to yield poor outcomes. Contending may escalate a conflict. When outcomes are finally reached they may be low-level compromises. Contention is often used as an opening strategy, to be replaced by problem solving at a later stage. In such cases the early use of contention may still yield beneficial outcomes.
When parties yield they reduce their aspirations. Yielding is an effective way to close negotiations when issues are unimportant and time pressures are high. Yielding can also contribute to a successful problem solving approach. However, outcomes tend to be depressed when both parties use a yielding strategy. The strategy of inaction is usually used to increase time pressure on the other party.
Choosing a Negotiation Strategy
Pruitt offers two models of negotiation strategy choice: the dual concern model, and the feasibility model. The dual concern model predicts strategy choice based on four factors. "Concern about both one's own and other party's outcomes encourages a problem-solving strategy; concern about only one's own outcomes encourages contending; concern about only the other party's outcomes encourages yielding; concern about neither party's outcomes encourages inaction."[p. 30-1]
Concern about one's own outcome is increased by the importance of the issues involved. Concern is also increased when one's aspirations are close to one's baseline position, that is, when there is little room to make concessions. Concern is diminished when one fears conflict. Research has found that representatives are more concerned and less likely to yield than are individuals negotiating on their own behalf. This is because representatives are accountable to and need the approval of their constituents.
Concern about the other party's outcome may be genuine or strategic. Genuine concern for the other is increased by personal attraction, shared group identity, or a positive mood. Strategic concern for the other's outcomes results from dependency on the other, or when the other can supply rewards or penalties.
Experimental studies have confirmed the model's predictions. Studies also show that concern for the other party's outcome leads to problem solving strategies and is most beneficial when combined with concern for each party's own outcome. Lower interest in one's own outcome results in yielding and low joint benefits. Representative accountability tends to encourage contention. However, representative accountability can promote problem solving if conditions also encourage a good relation between the negotiators.
Feasibility also affects the choice of negotiation strategy. "A strategy is seen as feasible to the extent that it seems capable of achieving the concerns that give rise to it."[p. 35] Even though a strategy is favored by the dual concern model, it will not be employed if it is not also seen as feasible.
The feasibility of problem solving strategies depends on the amount of the parties' perceived common ground (PCG), that is, how likely it seems that the parties will find a mutually satisfactory solution. The PCG is greater when the parties' aspirations are low, and their confidence in their creativity and ingenuity is high. Pruitt points out four factors which increase the parties' PCG. First is their confidence in their own problem solving skills. Second is the presence of problem solving momentum from previous successful negotiations. Third is the presence of a mediator. Mediators facilitate the parties' problem solving and communication activities, and actively search for common ground. Fourth is the presence of trust on the part of at least one of the parties. When the trusted party also has firm aspirations, the other party will generally adopt a problem solving strategy. When the trusted party's aspirations seem weak, the other party will adopt a contentious strategy, expecting the trusted party to yield.
Contending seems more feasible when the other party's concern for their own outcome is low, that is, when their resistance to yielding is low. Pruitt argues that contention is a self- limiting strategy. The strategy tends to be abandoned if it fails. Successful contention moves the losing party closer to their baseline position, and so tends to increase their resistance to further yielding. Thus further contention becomes less feasible. The costs of contending must also be taken into account when considering the feasibility of that strategy. Costs include possibly escalating the conflict, and provoking censure from third parties or constituents.
Inaction generally increases the time pressure on the parties. Yielding is the most common response to time pressure. Thus inaction is a feasible strategy when the other party is more susceptible to time pressure than the inactive party and when their resistance to yielding is low.
Influencing the Other Party's Strategy
Since joint problem solving yields the most beneficial outcomes, it is in a party's interests to encourage the other to adopt a problem solving approach. One way to do this is to encourage the other to develop concern for one's own outcomes. This may be done by offering favors to the other and cultivating their dependence, by pointing out a common identity, or by putting them in a good mood. Another way is to explicitly adopt a problem solving approach coupled with firmness about one's interests and aspirations, and flexibility about the means of satisfying those aspirations. Pruitt explains that "the firm part of this strategy should convince the other that contentious behavior is infeasible, that one will never give under pressure. The conciliatory and flexible parts should produce enough PCG and trust that the other will see problem solving as thoroughly feasible."[p. 42] Firmness in one's aspirations may be conveyed by strong statements and verbal defenses. Contentious tactics may be used to underscore one's commitment. However, parties must be careful in the use of such tactics, lest they undermine the greater problem solving approach. Flexibility in the means of reaching an outcome and the form of the outcome may be conveyed by showing concern for the other's interests and willingness to try to satisfy them, by open communication, by demonstrations of one's problem solving skills, and by a willingness to re-evaluate the importance of interests that are clearly unacceptable to the other side.