Five reasons to love ambiguity in negotiation

One of the least-liked features of negotiations is their ambiguity. In many negotiations, we say some things, our counterpart says some things, and then it’s totally ambiguous what anyone should say or do. But I’m here to tell you that ambiguity is one of the very greatest features of negotiation; indeed, a negotiation particularly mired in ambiguity is often a negotiation going well. In a word, ambiguity makes negotiations negotiable.

If that seems paradoxical, let me outline five unambiguous reasons to love the ambiguity of negotiations in general—and to particularly appreciate our most ambiguous negotiations. Ambiguity in negotiations allows you to:

  1. Make the first offer: In most any negotiation, both negotiators face major ambiguity as to the appropriate terms: what price to offer, what raise to request, which division of labor to propose. But that’s fantastic, as it allows the negotiator with slightly more courage and preparation to make the first offer and thereby set the tenor of the conversation.
  2. Move from positions to interests: The worst negotiations feature no ambiguity at all. Instead, the parties’ positions are crystal-clear, opposed, and set in stone. What could be clearer than that—and less productive? But if you’re experiencing ambiguity instead, chances are the parties haven’t yet locked themselves into intractable positions, meaning you still have hope of moving from positions to interests.
  3. Ask a lot of questions: If the options on the table seem clear, many people typically feel foolish asking a lot of questions. If it’s your way or my way, what else does anyone need to know? A pervasive sense of ambiguity about the viable options, in contrast, provides a beautiful justification for a multitude of questions. Blame it on your slow cognition or apologize for your embarrassing need to clarify, but query away! Since open-ended questions are one of the most powerful tools for ferreting out those critical interests, chances are your queries will help immensely.
  4. Explore creative solutions: Relatedly, people who seem to face clear agreement options tend to resist muddying the waters by proposing something entirely new and possibly a bit wacky. When nobody at the bargaining table knows what constitutes a viable solution, however, there’s no yardstick for judging what’s wacky and what’s not. And wackiness in the form of creative and unanticipated solutions is often all that stands between you and an impasse. Ambiguity lets you go there.
  5. Use ratification: In non-ambiguous negotiations, it’s kinda uncomfortable to ask for some time to think it over or check with someone else. If the possibilities are so straightforward, why would anyone need to? But the presence of lingering ambiguity, even as the deal seems done, affords ample reason to contemplate, crunch the numbers, or consult the various stakeholders. In a word, ambiguity provides cover for a strategy, ratification, that can dramatically improve your leverage.

In sum, as much as we might dread it, the ambiguity of negotiations is typically our friend, and particularly ambiguous negotiations tend to be particularly productive. To those points, let me hasten to add one thing: not all ambiguity. It’s obviously unhelpful if you or your counterpart has no idea what you’re trying to get from a deal, or has ambiguous authority to decide. More generally, ambiguity that obscures the negotiators’ own interests or authority probably won’t help. Still, I hope this post helps to highlight how many of the ambiguous moments in negotiation we should really appreciate or even stimulate in hopes of keeping the possibilities open—and our chances of satisfaction intact.

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