Hard impasse occurs when the mediation parties’ walk-away numbers are outside the zone of potential agreement. Suppose you want to pay $4 for a pair of sunglasses, but the vendor is asking $10. You’re willing to go as high as $5 and he’s willing to come down to $7.

In this case, the zone of potential agreement is apparently missing because the walk-away prices don’t overlap. A hard impasse of $2 separates them. To bridge the gap, you have two options:

  • Split the difference: You buy the sunglasses for $6 — $1 more than you’re willing to pay and $1 less than the vendor’s willing to accept. You’re both giving up $1, so it seems fair to both of you.

  • Give a reason: You may tell the vendor you have only $5 on you. Or the vendor may explain to you that he purchased the sunglasses for $6 and needs to earn at least $1 a pair to make it worth his while. Assuming you believe the vendor and buy into the reasoning, the $2 may no longer seem like a huge difference to you, and you agree to his walk-away price of $7.

People skills also factor into negotiations. If, during the negotiation, either party loses trust in the other or simply doesn’t like the other person’s attitude or negotiating methods, that individual may become less flexible.

Don’t let your disputants fall victim to distorted thinking and bad strategies. If they’re negotiating in the nano- and stratospheres and you can’t get them to negotiate close to the zone of potential agreement, let them know that he who makes the first reasonable offer typically gains the upper hand. The first offer exerts a strong pull on the other party throughout the negotiation.