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Power is the Friend of an Effective Negotiator

Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.

- Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

To win a negotiation you have to show you're willing to walk away. And the best way to show you're willing to walk away is to walk away.” - Michael Weston

Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.” - George P. Shultz


Power is often associated with competitive negotiation. But, power is vital to “goal-oriented” negotiation. Goal-oriented negotiation is the most effective negotiation approach. This means that the negotiator is equally concerned about the goals of themselves and the goals of others. Some might associate goal-oriented negotiation with collaboration. A majority of the time it can be, but the goal-oriented negotiator must be flexible, since sometimes they will be negotiating with a competitive or accommodating or compromising negotiator.

Some negotiations are “one-shot deals,” but most negotiations are ongoing, at least in terms of the relationship among the negotiation partners. So, winning through power might have short term advantages, but not long term. Even in large cities, the same negotiators wind up negotiating time and time again so they want to have a great negotiation reputation, which includes being honest and using power strategically and fairly.

Reinterpreting Weaknesses to Locate a New Source of Power

Most people associate power with size. Maybe a large law firm versus a small firm or a lone neighbor fighting City Hall of solo practitioner versus a large corporation. But maybe this is an erroneous assumption?

Celebrated author and critical thinker Malcolm Gladwell conveys a different interpretation of the Biblical story of David and Goliath in his book by that name.

In the story there is a standoff between the two armies, so they resort to “single combat.” The Philistines, Israel’s most notorious enemy, send what they consider to be their mightiest warrior, Goliath, who is an infantry warrior accustomed to hand-to-hand combat so he was armored and loaded with lots of weapons. Since no one else volunteered except the young Shepherd David, King Saul sends David.

At first glance, David seems at a disadvantage, but David does not fight in an infantry fashion but is a slinger: much more powerful than a sling shot. The stone he eventually shot at Goliath was super high-density (barium sulfate), so quite powerful. David had shunned the offer of armor because he was used to defending his sheep against lions and wolves with his sling, not armor.

Goliath, because of his size, weapons, and armor was considered to have the advantages. But weapons and armor are of no use when confronting “a slinger” who is not going to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Today, most doctors who contemplate Goliath believe he was afflicted by Gigantism (acromegaly) because of his height of 6 feet 9 inches. A typical symptom of Gigantism is vision impairment. In the Biblical story, Goliath is led to the confrontation by a young man. He could not seem to see David. He called David’s powerful sling “sticks."

So with these interpretations, this may not fall into “an improbable event where one outcome is greatly favored.”

David was powerful as a slinger, but would not have been powerful in hand-to-hand combat.

Goliath was powerful as a hand-to-hand combat situation, but not against a slinger.

The lessons? Watch out for assumptions about power. Examine each situation broadly and specifically.

Sources of Power

“There are several ways that you can increase your power in a negotiation, including through preparation, authority, knowledge of the other party, empathy, rewarding/punishing and investment.” - Brian Tracy, Negotiation

Author Tracy also refers to:

- The Power of Scarcity: If something is perceived as scarce, or actually is scarce, and one party has it, the bargaining power shifts.

- The Power of Indifference: This is often called “the poker face.” One party remains calm and unemotional giving them greater power in contrast to maybe the other party who is eager.

- The Power of Courage: If a party is strong with their arguments, their interests, their willingness to risk failure, they exude power.

- The Power of Commitment: A negotiator demonstrates power if they are truly committed; that is, they will take many necessary steps to make the deal, including concessions.

- The Power of Expertise and Knowledge: This power is especially important if the topic is technical or complex. If one negotiator does not have that expertise, tap a person who does.

Other Sources of Negotiation Power

Planning and Preparation

Remember Abraham Lincoln’s quote? "When I go to meet with a person, I spend 1/3 of my time thinking what I am going to do or say and 2/3 of my time thinking about what they are going to do or say."

Former President and General Dwight Eisenhower: "Planning is vital; Plans are useless."

Most negotiators and conflict managers do not plan sufficiently. If they do plan, they often plan only for themselves.

Instead, power is gained from ample planning, envisioning what all parties are going to do and say. The time to think about a well-tailored agreement is during the planning stage. Effective planning focuses on goals and yet, looks around the periphery: What else is going on that might affect this negotiation?

Planning creates power.

Effective communication skills. Communication skills including listening, questioning,and summarizing.

Listening is one of the most powerful tools. Careful planning allows one to listen more effectively. The major obstacle to listening is that most negotiators are wondering what they are going to say or do next during the negotiation. If one has planned, one can totally listen. First, one can really understand the positions and interests of the other parties. Second, listening demonstrates to the other parties that they are valued.

Questioning is a vital communication skill. Knowing the type of question, when to ask the question and when not, are all part of this skill. Open and focused questions elicit information. Direct and closed questions elicit specific information. Even leading questions can be helpful especially when sensitive topics are involved. It is probably wise to chart some questions during the planning stage so one is well prepared.

Silence is a valuable communication skill. Most people are uncomfortable with silence and begin to talk even more, maybe giving some of their real motivations and reasons that, but for the silence, they may not have “spilled.”

Negotiation Reputation: As indicated before, negotiations are rarely a one-shot deal. They usually involve multiple sessions, either on a particular situation or many situations. Negotiators want to have a great reputation. By great, this means that negotiators are reliable, predictable, well-planned, AND most of all, honest.

Nonverbal Communication: It is often stated that only 7% of communication meaning emanates from “Words” and the rest, nonverbal communication. Effective negotiators need to become experts at nonverbal communication and thereby, creating Power.

Effective negotiators monitor their nonverbal communication, as well as that of the other parties. Most people overestimate their abilities to “read” body language, often based on taking a course or two in the subject matter.

Creative options within the negotiation: In goal-oriented negotiation, the term “options” is used for ideas within the negotiation, and the term “alternatives” is used when speaking of ideas if the negotiation is deadlocked or fails.

Creative ideas may be generated during the negotiation but it is wise to create ideas before the negotiation so one is prepared. Often, idea generation is contagious, so if one negotiator offers ideas, all parties might also.

Effective Critical and Strategic Thinking: The back and forth of concessions demand strategic thinking. Giving the first concession sometimes sets the give and take process in motion. During planning, prioritize your concessions. If one gives a high priority concession, expect an equal response. This type of thinking gives the negotiator power.

Alternatives to a Negotiation: A great source of power is to have alternatives to a negotiated agreement. It may be challenging,but negotiators, during the planning process, need to plan for the potential of no agreement or deadlock. It is ideal to craft several different, viable other paths. This relieves the pressure and creates power.


Nancy Rogers is a Professor Emeritus at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She also serves on the executive committee of the College’s Divided Community Project. She offers this thought on power:

“Discussing power or exercising it by walking out seems to dampen any tendency to respond to an appeal for equity. If you can wait to push the power lever until after you have tried to reach an equitable resolution, that forbearance may sometimes lead to a result that works better over time.”

Columbus, Ohio attorney, mediator (and Adjunct Professor at Capital Unviersity Law School) Terry Wheeler agrees and adds, “The challenge becomes who decides when the time for trying an equitable resolution has ended.”

Power is often seen as obvious. Power is often viewed as “who has the most marbles.”

Effective negotiators behave in a way that contradicts both of those ideas. They realize that there are many sources of power and that power is both real and perception. Power plays a vital role in all stages of the negotiation including planning. Power is not used in a manipulative fashion but strategically aiming for an agreement that substantially satisfies all parties.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray


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