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Don’t Defend the Indefensible!

Ben Byth
Don’T Defend The Indefensible!

Arriving at the airport for my 11pm redeye flight home, I was a little confused to see the lounge was closed. Expecting the reason to be something like, “We were unable to staff it” or “We are cutting costs.” My confusion flashed into irritation when I was told, “We are observing safety measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19”. I found myself asking, “Are you telling me I am now safer because I am sitting at the gate instead of the lounge?”  

We all know how infuriating it is when someone presents us with an absurd position… so why do we do it ourselves in negotiations? The only response we can be sure of getting in return is irritation. The last thing I try and do with people who irritate me is to try to help them, instead my subconscious views them as a threat and the response is to attack and defeat them. In reality, I only care about the lounge so much right now because of how it was taken away from me.  

None of the behaviour that follows indefensible positions is productive in a negotiation. 

What if we need to toe the line on an indefensible position?  

I would be surprised if there were people in corporate land who have never had to achieve/defend a position that they did not believe in. Maybe it is an ambit position or maybe it is unfair, either way, trying to defend it will elicit unproductive behaviour in response. So, instead of trying to defend it… don’t defend it at all. You might say:  

“I know this looks unfair, but I’ve been told I need to achieve it.”  

Leaning into the fact it is hard to defend will help to reduce the tension and any counterproductive emotional responses. Think of it like this… it is hard to argue with someone who is not arguing back. 

Now that the wind has been taken out of the argument, this is your chance to redirect and coach them around how to negotiate this problem with you.  

“I can’t change this, however if you can help me achieve this, I can be flexible in other ways such as X or Y.”  

In order for this to work, you will need to prepare a number of possible low cost/low difficulty concessions you could make in exchange for them agreeing to your ambit position.  

What if I’m on the receiving end of an indefensible position?  

Resist the urge to fight fire with fire, instead test for flexibility and trade the problem away.  

Test their position.  

Instead of telling them their position is silly or asking how they could possibly justify it, ask them if they can help you understand or explain it. Often people will offer flexibility if they have trouble explaining their position. Be sure to reward (not punish) any flexibility you surface.  

Ask yourself.

  • What do they want?  
  • Why do they want it? 
  • How badly do they want it? 
  • Could we get the authority to concede on this issue?  
  • What could we get in exchange for this concession?  

Explore trading opportunities.  

After structuring their expectations that you see the world differently, offer to explore under what circumstances you would be prepared to move. It could sound like this: 

  • We simply see the world differently, and under no circumstances can I unconditionally agree. 
  • Just supposing I could move towards you on X, would you be prepared to move towards me on Y or Z?  
  • If you agree to 15% more Y, I can agree to 15% more X. Does that work?  

In summary...

Indefensible positions elicit terrible behaviour, so we are far better off not trying to defend them.  

If it is your position, coach them around how to negotiate with you.  

If it is their position, ignore the irritation, test for flexibility, and trade it to them. 

If you would like further information on how to successfully defuse conflict and effectively trade at the negotiation table, check out our flagship Advancing Negotiation Skills program here to see how we can help.  

Happy negotiating!  

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