Thinking about Your Opponent 1–Motivation


Berton Lee Lamb

What does my opponent want out of this negotiation?  One of the most common comments we hear from our clients goes something like this: “If I only knew what they want I could negotiate better” or “I don’t understand how they see this problem.”  These are feelings that almost everyone has at one time or another in a negotiation.  How can we figure out what our opponents really want?

Several years ago I was part of a team negotiating with a very hard-nosed opponent.
Our team spent many hours examining the question of what our opponent hoped to achieve.  This was a very competitive, position-based, negotiation; not at all interest-based.  Try as we might to move the bargaining away from threats and challenges, we could not reframe the process into one of mutual problem-solving.

Finally, a non-binding arbitrator was engaged.  That proved to be a watershed event because the arbitrator pointed out what was likely to happen if the problem escalated to the courtroom.  The arbitrator showed us that a judge’s opinion might very well be worse for each of us than we expected.  We were motivated to make a deal.    But we never learned what our opponent really wanted.

We did learn what our opponent was willing to accept rather than face the uncertainty of the court room.  Although unsatisfying, that was probably good enough.

The lessons we learned from this negotiation might be valuable in future situations.

First, this was a negotiation in which our opponent believed no future negotiation with us was likely.  Our opponent didn’t care if we could continue to work together.  This left little room for mutual problem-solving. We should have tried harder to show how we would need to continue working together even after the dispute was resolved.

Second, our opponent was relying on an outside, precedent-setting event as a guide in the current negotiation.  We didn’t know about this event.  Had we known, we would have understood more about what our opponent believed would happen.  We recommend asking questions like this: Has your opponent participated in this kind of negotiation before and, if so, what was that experience?

In this dispute, we came to realize that our opponent had made an over-estimation of negotiating power.  To move the dispute toward resolution we needed to help our opponent realistically see the result of not negotiating with us.  Agreeing on non-binding arbitration gave both sides the opportunity to see the dispute with fresh eyes.

Third, we should have examined our opponent in context.  Who was on the opponent’s negotiating team and what was their history with this kind of dispute? Were other parties involved and how were they connected to our opponent?  Did our opponent have experience in other disputes and, if so, what had been the opponent’s approach to those negotiations?

Although our dispute was resolved, we never fully learned what motivated our opponent.  But we did learn that a bit more planning at the beginning would have saved us time and money in the long run.


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