How to deal with ultimatums

24.10.2020

It's the hard bargaining, the ultimatum. It often looks like the dead end of a negotiation. A Deadlock situation. You probably recognize it as something like

"Take it - or leave it"

"That's all we can do"

"We can never do that"

"You must do this".

Usually it's emotionally loaded and an effort from your counterpart to take control over the situation. Now this can be both frustrating and scary.

Because you might find yourself in a situation where you face the pressure of the counterpart, but at the same time have a boss or an organization behind you who is expecting you to bring home a better deal. The feeling that the negotiation has come to a deadlock can be scary, but my experience is that what might seem like a deadlock rarely is.

Now here is my three best advice on how to deal with an ultimatum.

1. Ignore It

Did he just say that? Yes he did. And the reason why you should ignore an ultimatum is this. How many times in history have people been super confident that they are right, when time proved them wrong? What we do when we ignore an ultimatum is to provide a way out for our counterparts. A way our to change their minds or back down in the future. What you are doing is to not legitimize the ultimatum.

2. Neutralize it

If you are not feeling confident of ignoring something your counterpart just said, especially in the form of an ultimatum, try to neutralize it. Neutralize it means that we re-frame the ultimatum to become non-ultimatum. If someone throws a "We will never agree to that". Try and re-frame it as: "It seems as, given where we are today, it will probably be difficult for you to do this".

This re-framing provides two things. First you reframe the "Never", to "Where we are today" - So you give them an opportunity to change their minds in the future.

Second you re-frame that it's "Probably difficult" - But not Impossible.

3. Acknowledge the underlying concern.

If you are really feeling confident with the situation, you can try to acknowledge the underlying concern of the ultimatum. Ask more questions, and really address the issue in order to gain more information from your counterpart.

"What makes you say that"

"It sounds like this is a very important issue for you, tell me more about why this concern you"

An Ultimatum is very rarely a true ultimatum, but if it is. If your counterpart can't actually agree to it. You will know, because they won't shut up about it. They will say it over, and over again, so you won't miss it. Then you need to think about if there really is any chance of a negotiated deal. My experience is that it usually is, so try one of these three techniques and bring it home!

Book recommendation on the subject: "Negotiating the impossible: How to break deadlocks and resolve ugly conflicts (Without money or muscle)". - Deepak Malhotra, Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration Harvard Business School.