Managing Deadlocks

Sometimes negotiations reach a point where no-one is willing to budge. It’s called a deadlock, and it’s often difficult to know what to do next. Should you hold your cards close to your chest, take a break, or back out altogether? 

In this article, we revisit the Hanoi Summit of February 2019 between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to consider what to do when you reach a negotiating deadlock.   

Reaching the deadlock 

Kim and Trump’s first-ever summit was held in Singapore in June 2018. It was hailed a success as both leaders signed a joint statement setting out a significant thawing of bilateral relations.  

So when the second summit was arranged, expectations were high. The world watched as Kim set off on a 60-hour train journey to Hanoi, and Trump flew half-way around the world to meet him.  

Unlike the Singapore meeting, the 2-day Hanoi summit ended abruptly part-way through the second day. A deadlock had been reached and no progress was made. Why did the talks collapse? Some analysts pointed to Trump’s unconventional ‘top-down’ negotiating style. Others suggested that Kim’s demands were excessive, and he was unwilling to yield.  

Walking away from a deal with nothing is not a good look for any negotiator, but it’s especially disappointing when a highly anticipated meeting like this fails to reach an outcome. So what could the parties have done differently to avoid the deadlock?  

Breaking the deadlock 

If we look to the content of the negotiation, there were a number of possible solutions. Trump and Kim could have agreed to keep the lines of communication open by agreeing to establish liaison offices, or perhaps they could have agreed to a joint declaration formally ending the Korean War. 

The alternative (and more useful) strategy would have been to consider the process. Perhaps one of the parties created the impasse as a deliberate tactic to put pressure on the other party. Was this the case in Hanoi?  

Negotiators often make the mistake of thinking the source of a deadlock is a substantive issue (related to content). But often, it’s the behaviour between the parties that is the problem. Sometimes, the parties end up attacking each other and this may have happened in Hanoi.  

Problematic behaviour includes: 

  • telling the other party that they were wrong 
  • demanding that the other party change their views  
  • pressing for their own points to be accepted 
  • making personal threats 
  • making negative comments about each other? 

This attacking behaviour causes emotions to flare, and it commonly results in a deadlock becoming even more entrenched. When this happens, it’s important for negotiators to stop discussing the content and focus instead on the process (or how the negotiation is being managed).  

Skilled negotiators search for deadlock-breaking process moves that appear to meet the needs of the other side, without giving away any concessions that relate to content. In this case, Kim and Trump could have: 

  • reviewed future consequences and thought about what might happen if they failed to reach an agreement 
  • established a task force (i.e. changed negotiators) and empowered the new representatives from both sides to explore and report on alternative options within a defined time limit. 

Tips for negotiators 

  • Check whether the impasse has been deliberately created as a tactic.  
  • Look for unhelpful attacking behaviour that may have led to the breakdown. 
  • Stop discussing the content and focus on the process. 
  • Take a look at the ENS list of 25 deadlock-breaking process options to find one that’s appropriate for your situation.  

How ENS can help 

ENS consultants work with clients all over the world to help them learn how to negotiate effectively in high-stakes scenarios. Sometimes negotiations reach a deadlock and it’s important to know how to focus on the process rather than the content to break through the impasse and get the negotiation back on track.  

Want to know more? 

To discuss this article in more depth and explore how you can develop your negotiation capabilities, contact us on the form below. 

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