Hard and Soft Bargaining – “The Applied Side: How to Bargain in Global Politics”

How do you actually behave in a negotiation setting? Which strategy do you intend to follow? Confrontational or cooperative? Are you willing to concede to the better argument?  Alternatively, will you be tough regarding your initial position? Do you perceive the other party/parties to the negotiation rather as opponents or as partners? Are you interested in the people and their underlying needs and interests? Will you give in eventually? These are some of the practical questions to be considered before entering a negotiation.

A first, rough distinction of strategic outlooks for negotiation is that between “hard” and “soft” strategies. It is often inexperienced negotiators that consider these to be the only existing alternatives while acknowledging that it significantly depends on the negotiator’s personal preferences (see unit 11) as well as on the context which of the two approaches is recommendable under which circumstances. (Fisher, Ury, Patton 1999, 8; Mastenbroek 1989)

Hard bargaining uses all instruments at hand in the pursuit of one-sided advantage. Pressure, threats, bluffing, tricks, etc. are tactics applied in order to outsmart someone or to make him or her do something that is not in his or her interest. Hard bargaining is about pushing through one-sided interests and it follows the competitive logic of zero-sum games in which one side’s losses are the other side’s gains.

Soft bargaining, on the other hand, recognizes the potential dangers hard bargaining styles have, particularly for the current and future relationship between the negotiating parties. According to Fisher, Ury, and Patton (1999, 8), soft negotiators see the other side as friends and instead of trying to reach victory at all costs, they aim at securing agreement by yielding to the other side and their demands if necessary. Cooperation becomes the leading principle whereas hard negotiation is based on competition. (Pfetsch 2006, 52-53) The result of soft bargaining will often be agreements that are reached quickly but that are not necessarily wise ones, as both sides might fail to reach their legitimate interests in the attempt to be more accommodating than the other side. Please see table 1 for a comparison of the characteristics of hard and soft bargaining styles.

Hard bargaining Soft bargaining
  • Participants are adversaries,
  • The goal is victory,
  • Demand concessions as a condition of the relationship,
  • Be hard on the problem and the people,
  • Distrust others,
  • Dig in to your position,
  • Make threats,
  • Mislead as to your bottom line,
  • Demand one-sided gains as the price of agreement,
  • Search for the single answer: the one you will accept,
  • Insist on your position,
  • Try to win a contest of will, and
  • Apply pressure.
  • Participants are friends,
  • The goal is the agreement,
  • Make concessions to cultivate the relationship,
  • Be soft on the people and the problem,
  • Trust others,
  • Change your position easily,
  • Make offers,
  • Disclose your bottom line,
  • Accept one-sided losses to reach agreement,
  • Search for the single answer: the one they will accept,
  • Insist on agreement,
  • Try to avoid a contest of will, and
  • Yield to pressure.

Source: Adapted from Fisher, Ury, Patton 1999, 9.

Most negotiation theorists, however, would reject this rather simplistic distinction between soft and hard bargaining. Many different terminologies exist in the literature, e.g. differentiating between distributive and integrative bargaining (e.g. Lewicki, Barry, Saunders 2007), and between the concession-convergence and the joint decision-making approach (Jönsson 2002), and many others. In this unit, we follow the distinction advanced by Fisher, Ury, and Patton (1999) between positional bargaining on the one hand and interest-based (or principled) negotiation on the other.

 

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Hard and Soft Bargaining - Excerpt from Unit 2 from IR Module
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Hard and Soft Bargaining - Excerpt from Unit 2 from IR Module
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How do you actually behave in a negotiation setting? Which strategy do you intend to follow? Confrontational or cooperative? Are you willing to concede to the better argument? Alternatively, will you be tough regarding your initial position? Do you perceive the other party/parties to the negotiation rather as opponents or as partners? Are you interested in the people and their underlying needs and interests? Will you give in eventually?

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