Fisher Mediation
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The Power of Deadlines in Negotiation

By Paul Fisher1

Deadlines, when used strategically, are very effective in negotiation. Yet, many negotiators hesitate to place a deadline on talks for fear it will not be taken seriously or that the negotiation will implode.2

The classic example of a powerful use of an artificial deadline was the NBA team owners and players 1998 six month fight that led to deadlock. When the NBA owners locked out the players and that action did not lead to a resolution, the owners very publically notified the players that if there was no agreement by January 7, 1999, the owners would cancel the rest of the season. Though that would have a costly impact on the owners, it would devastate the players. Agreement was reached on January 6. The terms were highly favorable to the owners.

Without a deadline, negotiators are tempted to use stalling tactics intending to pressure the other side to give in. Yet, many negotiators hesitate to place a deadline on their talks. However, deadlines increase pressure on the other party to reach an agreement in almost any negotiation environment. Negotiators who recognize that deadlines affect everyone equally can use them to defuse costly stalling tactics. Because deadlines put pressure on everyone, they can get talks moving. Do not be afraid to set deadlines and stick to them. Both sides will work harder as the deadline looms closer and this reduces the risk of both sides walking away. When an opponent knows about your deadline, he will make concessions much more quickly. However, be careful when using deadlines. If you say, “I have to close this by Wednesday”, your opponent can use the time deadline against you. If you say, “I’m here to negotiate until Wednesday. Then I’m moving on with my alternatives.”

On the other hand real deadlines need not stop negotiations. In a recent mediation one of the attorneys in a multiparty case had to leave late in the afternoon to catch a plane. We continued negotiations by mobile phone and resolved the dispute just before he boarded his flight. In this instance boarding was the hard deadline.

  1. Copyright 2017 by Paul Fisher
  2. With gratitude to Harvard Law School’s Project On Negotiation (PON). What follows is a paraphrase of the PON article, “Famous Negotiation Cases — NBA and the Power of Deadlines at the Bargaining Table.” August 15, 2017.