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How to negotiate in times of panic

In a crisis, move from definitive to contingent measures, and from a negotiation mindset into collaborative decision making.

In times of crisis much decision making is done through negotiation. Some crises can be anticipated and prepared for. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t one of them.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Adil Najam says applying traditional negotiation theory and practice here may not be appropriate – and could make things worse. He outlines two changes to make to negotiations in times of panic.


Time warps in all crises, but during panics it’s counted in moments. Once we’re convinced that a crisis is existential, we concentrate on securing the immediate – because tomorrow may not come. This is expected and reasonable. Timely action is paramount, especially in a crisis like COVID-19.

However, standard negotiating advice is to think about the long term. What will be the impact, including unintended consequences, of what I decide today? In moments of panic, tomorrow seems too far away. Still, a crisis is as terrible a time as any to ignore the long term. Coronavirus will eventually recede, and interim decisions that ignore medium- and long-term implications can leave institutions unprepared.

Solution: Identify contingent measures. Say you’re on a school board, and you’ve decided to transition to virtual instruction for the rest of the semester. Your immediate concern is the health and safety of students and staff. Students and parents are wondering whether there will still be a graduation, and what impact the change will have on grades.

If it’s a short lockout, you might close school for a week with homework. If it goes beyond two weeks, you gear up for remote teaching. If longer, plan for remote exams. Think about the short- and long-term implications of each. At the same time, map out a contingent path to return. At what point do staff begin to return? When is everything back to normal? What are the preparatory measures for each stage?


The concept of BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement – is a touchstone of most win-win negotiation strategies. The idea is to get to an agreement that’s better than the best you can do without an agreement. This focuses the mind on how we can maximise potential gains.

However, in times of grave crisis, decision-making is rightly motivated by wanting to avoid the worst alternative (WATNA). But once the framework moves to concentrating on the worst, anxiety sets in, and our usual negotiation habits seem useless. Familiar tools are hard to use in a climate of fear where the goal is not to seek mutual gain but to avoid mutual loss.

Solution: Extract yourself from a negotiation mindset and move into collaborative decision-making. This can be invaluable in panic situations. Approaching negotiations with full, open, truthful exchanges in search of joint gains can seem unrealistically idealistic in everyday negotiations, but in times of crisis it’s useful and necessary.

These strategies can be helpful in many situations. But they’re particularly pertinent – maybe critical – for negotiating your COVID-19 response – as well as other panic-prone crises.

Source Article: Avoid These Traps When Negotiating in a Crisis
Author(s): Adil Najam
Publisher: Harvard Business Review