I love to negotiate, sometimes a bit too much.

A deep negotiation has to be one of life's most exhilarating experiences. Few things will force you to dig deeper into your creativity and to become so fully aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and will test your mettle as fully as a negotiation on something you really want.

Where we most often get negotiation wrong is in the attempt to try to win by standing our ground far too early in a negotiation, before we have a chance to find out what the immutable constraints are for each side.

I used to say that the only way to negotiate was to be ready to walk away from the deal. Only by doing that can you really know if the other side was bluffing or not. Colleagues who had been in negotiations with me were familiar with my tactic of slapping my hand down on the table, saying, "That's it I'm done," and walking out of the room. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but it always felt good.

I still believe in the power of walking away--otherwise you have no leverage--but what has changed is my timing and the strategy I use to walk away.

The challenge I faced, as do most of us, is that I'd become impatient with a negotiation, lay down an ultimatum, and walk before I understood the other side's limits, or, for that matter, my own. I'd close my mind to any scenarios other than the ones I'd initially envisioned and quickly discount the opportunity to truly identify creative solutions that acknowledge the other side's constraints.

There is definitely power in walking away from the table if a deal isn't right, but if that power is exercised too early, you risk making it a battle of egos and emotion, and derailing the negotiation.

So, what's the right strategy for identifying the real constraints that the other side faces? Well, first make absolutely sure that you have identified your own constraints. You may walk into the negotiation expecting to walk away with a certain dollar amount. Make sure you've done the math for as many scenarios as you possibly can and come equipped with that knowledge.

That sort of unemotional rational thought can often be tough in a negotiation, which is why you should determine what your floor really is before entering the negotiation.

Once you've established your constraints, you're ready to approach the table. And this is where it gets infinitely harder. How do you determine the other side's floor?

I stumbled upon the answer years ago when my company was embroiled in a bitter trademark battle with a megacorp. We ultimately settled by doing what I'm about to describe. It wasn't until years later that I heard Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference and the FBI's former lead international hostage negotiator, describe this tactic that I realized how powerful it really is.

I'm going to use my own experiences to personalize Voss's comments, but I'd strongly recommend you get a copy of his book, which gets into so much more about the science of negotiation.

A caveat first--it is critical to keep in mind two things before taking the route I'm about to describe. One, do not attempt this as a bluff, because if you do, there is a strong chance you'll regret it. This is the real deal. You're going to draw a hard line that cannot be undone. Besides, bluffing may work at the poker table, but in any serious negotiation, you've just put yourself in a position of near zero leverage.

And two, do not use this as an ongoing tactic throughout the negotiation. It works only a very limited number of times and sometimes only once. In that regard I like to think of it as the nuclear option, because you will likely get one shot and there is no turning back once you pull this trigger.

Here's how it works.

Take It or Leave It or ...

Once you have reached your floor and you're unable to concede further, it's very tempting to just say no to any offer that doesn't meet that requirement. Instead, Voss suggests you just say, "How am I supposed to do that?"

You will get one of three types of responses;

  1. "That's your problem,"
  2. "Here's how," or
  3. "I don't care--this is it, take it or leave it."

If the response is the first one, "That's your problem," then you know that you are at or near the outer limits of the other side's constraints. You have two choices: Take the deal being offered or walk away after saying, "No, it's actually not a problem I can solve, so if you want this deal to happen, you need to answer that question." Now walk, but with the knowledge that the negotiation may have just come to an end. You need to be willing to live with that. Seriously, it's not a bluff. If the other side does not come back with an answer that is acceptable, your only option is to concede or forever walk away from the deal. Even though the deal isn't dead just yet, the negotiation is pretty much done.

If the response is the second one, "Here's how," then listen carefully because you may very well hear something that you don't want to hear but that could reframe the deal in a way that allows it to happen. It will likely not be the way you wanted to do the deal, but nonetheless it keeps the door open and gives you the option to get the deal done.

In both cases you've achieved four very important goals:

  1. you've said no without actually saying no,
  2. you've shifted the burden of getting the deal done to the other side while still standing your ground,
  3. you've made it clear that you have reached a point where the deal will not be done without some degree of creativity or concession on the part of the other side, and
  4. you've acknowledged that you are still interested in making the deal happen if the other side is also interested.

If the response is the third one, "I don't care--this is it, take it or leave it," then you know you've reached the other side's floor. Professional negotiators know not to play this card unless they are completely prepared to walk away from the deal. Be very careful with your response to this, because it most often signals that you've just hit rock bottom and reached a decision point. You can push back with a slightly different version of the seven words, for example, "No, seriously, you tell me how I can do that." But ultimately you need to decide.

"Sometimes the only option is to walk away, but you can walk away slowly."

The only exception to this is if you sense that you're dealing with a very green, very emotional, or a very naive and inexperienced negotiator. In that case, you need to quickly, and without emotion, defuse the situation by asking the other side to consider the question "How am I supposed to do that?" and get back to you within a certain time frame. There's no sense in continuing the discussion--it will only escalate the already precariously tense emotions.

The important thing is that in any of the three cases you've kept the negotiation in play and you now both have a clear decision point. Take the deal as it stands, get creative, or walk.

Remember, I said that this works only when every other avenue has been fully exhausted and you are ready to really walk. Coming back to the table repeatedly after doing this will only erode the other side's perception of your position and commitment to it.

As a good friend who'd seen me in action during my greener negotiations once said, "Sometimes the only option is to walk away, but you can walk away slowly."