Does hard bargaining work? It depends on your goals

A thunderstorm

As a negotiation and mediation specialist with more than 2,500 experiences over 30 years, I can say that sometimes hard bargaining works, but only if used with collaborative approaches and if both parties want to work toward an agreement. Hard bargaining by itself rarely works. However, hard bargaining coupled with collaborative techniques markedly improves the probability of success. The following commentary explains why this is so and offers suggestions on how to work with a hard bargainer who may be unprincipled.


The unprincipled hard bargainer


The hard bargainer who is very bravado and presents a take-it-or-leave-it offer with ultimatums can have the results backfire.

A coalition is hard to keep together, and when an ultimatum comes from a hard bargainer, the ultimatum at can kill the deal as well as the coalition. Donald Trump's immigration and aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan are classic examples, as illustrated in this article. If the underlying goal is to kill a deal, hard bargaining works like a charm.

On the other hand, if you want to work toward an agreement with a hard bargainer and the hard bargainer is interested in a deal, there are things you can do. My book Peaceful Resolutions discusses soft, hard, and principled bargainers. Below are selected excerpts from that book. If you wish to learn more, consider purchasing the book.


Soft, hard, and principled bargainers


Researchers involved in The Harvard Negotiation Project have identified three basic kinds of negotiators. These types of negotiators are called soft bargainers, hard bargainers, and principled bargainers.

Soft negotiators prefer a gentle style of bargaining. Their offers are not always in their best interest. They yield quickly to others’ demands, they avoid confrontation, and they strive to maintain good relations with other negotiators. Their preferred relationship to others is one of friendship, and their goal in negotiations is agreement. They do not separate people from problems and are soft on both. They do not like conflict or competition and avoid contests of wills. They will insist on agreement, offering solutions that may cost them, and trust others to do the right thing.

Hard negotiators use manipulative strategies to influence, utilizing phrases such as “this is my final offer” and “take it or leave it.” Hard negotiators make threats, are distrustful of others, insist on their position, and apply pressure to conclude negotiations. They see others as opponents and adversaries, and their ultimate goal is victory. They will search for one single answer and will insist on agreement with it. Like soft bargainers, hard bargainers do not separate the people from the problem, but they are hard on both the people they deal with as well as the problem.

Principled negotiators seek integrative solutions and avoid specific, entrenched positions. Principled bargainers focus on the problem, not the intentions or motives of people, explore the interests of the people involved, avoid bottom lines, and reach results based on criteria and standards that are independent of arbitrary personal will. These criteria may be drawn from moral standards, principles of fair play, professional standards, and other objective sources. And while “self-interest” and “corporate interest” are principles widely adhered to and even admired, they are not “principles” in the same way that “fair trade” and “community interest” are ethical principles that ask us to live by a higher standard which we call the Golden Rule.


Both soft bargainers and hard bargainers are challenges to other bargainers


A soft bargainer may agree to a solution pushed by a hard bargainer, but this can come back to bite later when it is necessary to reopen the negotiation after the soft bargainer has had a chance to reflect on the unfairness of the deal. A soft bargainer is trusting of the process and may expect a fair deal. When this is disappointed, anger can run deep and this can lead like a cancer to more difficulties in future negotiations.

hard bargainer may try bullying techniques on a soft or principled bargainer, but the determined principled bargainer will resist the hard bargainer’s bullying by staying focused on the facts despite the intimidation. If the hard negotiator does not move from an entrenched position, the only alternative for a principled bargainer may be walking away or employing a BATNA .


Here is a table from Chapter 7 on negotiations from Peaceful Resolutions*


Explore the categories and note the negotiation strategies taken by the soft, hard, and principled negotiator. You can be a much better negotiator by keeping your eye on the prize, focusing on the problem, and being principled.

Negotiation Strategies














Make offers

Make Threats

Explore interests




Wise outcome

Insist on…



Compromise using objective criteria








Trust but verify

Contest of will



Reach a result based on standards independent of will


Yield as necessary

Apply pressure as necessary

Yield to logic and principle, but not to pressure


Soft on people/

Soft of problem

Hard on people/

Hard on problem

Soft on people/

Hard on problem


Make concessions to cultivate the relationship

Demand concessions as a condition of the relationship

Separate people from problems; focus on interests; create options


Accept one-sided gains as a price of agreement

Demand one-sided gains as a price of agreement

Invent options for mutual gain


Search for an answer they can accept

Search for the answer you can accept

Develop multiple options to choose from; decide later

Bottom line

Disclose bottom line

Mislead as to the bottom line

Avoid having a bottom line


*© Copyright 2016 by Birch Grove Publishing. Used by permission.

Note the approach taken by each of the three types of bargainers. The hard bargainer approach will likely win if the goal is to kill the deal. But is killing the deal the objective of the negotiation? Typically, no, killing a deal is not the objective. Instead, both parties in a negotiation typically want to have some form of compromise as they find a reasonable resolution.


What should you do?


Remember to:

Separate people from the problem. Focus on the problem. Be tough on the problem and gentle on the people. Avoid blaming yourself or others.

Positions polarize, and interests integrate. Behind every entrenched position is at least one interest. Interests hold the seeds for a solution. Focus on interests and not positions.

Be creative and look for ways to gain mutual benefit. Consider conditions, contingencies, and other alternatives now or in the future.

Insist on using objective criteria to work toward a solution. If nothing else, know your BATNA and be prepared to walk away if you cannot meet it.


Check out these links if you need assistance, want to learn more about collaboration and conflict resolution, or want to enhance your Servant Manager skills.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]