Superior deal-makers are always aware of their relative power at the bargaining table. They know when they'll have the most leverage and when they'll have the least. They're constantly on guard against the unexpected event (the entry of a competitor, an approaching deadline, a tough break for their adversary and so on) that shifts the advantage in their direction. That's how they arrange things so time is on their side.
By noting the rhythm of the other side's responses-by phone, fax, e-mail or in a meeting-you can gauge their enthusiasm, need and greed. If opponents pick up the pace, it usually means they're eager. Of course, the more they want it, the more they have to pay for it. If their responsiveness drops, you can assume that their interest level has, too.
Although playing hard to get has its place, don't worry about looking desperate just because you keep your negotiations moving right along. After all, timely responses build momentum, increase focus and enhance cooperation. And with all the details, egos, positions, interests and technical difficulties that are thrown together in any half-way-complicated deal, a little eagerness can actually be a relief to some.
Some strategists recommend keeping the other side off-guard through change-of-pace tactics. Perhaps an occasional well-executed drop in enthusiasm could make the other side try harder. More likely, such a ruse may backfire and brand you as manipulative, clumsy or indecisive.
A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size (Owl Books/Henry Holt). You can reach him at MarcDiener@aol.com.
The Eleventh Hour
It's no accident that negotiations accelerate as the deadline approaches. When time is plentiful, everyone holds out for the best deal. When time is scarce, key concessions come smoothly and gracefully. Having a deadline is like having an efficiency expert right there at the bargaining table. When you discover that your opponent has time constraints, take the high ground. Crank up the leverage by dragging your feet a little-but in a nice way, of course. A little delay, artfully disguised as mild inefficiency, droll distraction or coincidental unavailability, goes a long way. For instance, any Hollywood agent knows to drive a much harder bargain when a studio's just a few days away from shooting an important film. On the flip side, if your opponents learn you have a deadline, expect them to use it against you. Do your utmost to close efficiently without ever breaking a sweat.
The phony deadline is a classic negotiating gambit used to force one side into a quick close. If you suspect a drop-dead date to be disingenuous, test it: Press the other side for a detailed, plausible explanation, but always be skeptical of what you hear. Ask for an extension to see whether their reaction fits their explanation. If you can, contact an expert or an insider for additional verification. Or, if you feel gutsy, call their bluff. If the other side's hurrying and hassling you, it's because they know if they let you think once, you're sure to think twice.
Finally, every negotiation must eventually come to an end. No deal is perfect, no discussion foresees every what if, and there will always be one more point to win. Reconsider the big picture. If the expense, effort, time, lost opportunity or increased stress outweigh the possible benefit of any further concessions, call it a deal and shake on it. On the other hand, once you've gone round and round on all the major issues (and most of the minor ones) and the deal still doesn't meet your bottom line, walk away. As the saying goes, "Sometimes your best deals are the ones you don't make."