A curious thing happens again and again in practice negotiations we conduct at seminars. Attendees are able to control their concession behavior through most of the bargaining. They make relatively modest concessions as give and take progresses. Then, when I announce that deadline is approaching, one party or the other cracks by making large concessions not reciprocated by the other. The party making smaller concessions as deadline approaches usually does better.

In my formal doctoral experiment at the University of Southern California with 120 professional negotiators, I found that both sides controlled their concession behavior for most of the session. Then things changed. As deadline approached and I began to announce, “three minutes to go,” “two to go,” “one to go,” – a hush fell over the room. The tension mounted. Many participants settled only minutes or seconds before the final bell, although they’d had a full hour to do so.

It turned out that both skilled and unskilled negotiators made concessions as time ran out. Both caved in somewhat as they sought to reach settlement, but it was the unskilled who gave away the most.

A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, told me he wasn’t surprised at these results. He has found that people make bad decisions under pressure; they behave in emotional rather than in rational ways. His belief for those who come to him as patients is that they are better off postponing a decision when under duress.

The next time you are in a negotiation, recognize that your tendency will be to give too much as deadline comes close. Discipline yourself to make smaller concessions and spread them out a bit longer. Learn to ask two simple questions as time runs out. First, “Why should I give so much in one lump sum right now?” And second, “Why not make these final concessions on the installment plan- a little now, a little later?” These reminders will help you avoid the deadline cave-in crisis. Remember also that most deadlines are themselves subject to negotiation. There is usually time enough to make another concession after you have renegotiated the deadline.

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