Defining Impasse, Stalemate, and Deadlock in Negotiations


In longer or extended negotiations, it is not uncommon for parties to encounter impasses, stalemates, and deadlocks with the opposing side. This is especially true in certain passionate, heated, or emotional negotiations. It can be easy to confuse an impasse with a deadlock, and some people even use the terms interchangeably. So I think it is good to have a working definition of the three to recognize the differences when labeling such an event during a negotiation. I think Roger Dawson did a good job defining the concepts in the 15th Anniversary Edition of “Secrets of Power Negotiating: Inside Secrets From a Master Negotiator.” Here is how this updated for the 21st century text defined these concepts:

Impasse: You are in complete disagreement on one issue, and it threatens the negotiations.

Stalemate: Both sides are still talking, but seem unable to make any progress toward a solution.

Deadlock: The lack of progress has frustrated both sides so much that they see no point in talking to each other anymore.

The importance of understanding the differences, especially between an impasse and a deadlock, is that deadlocks are very rare, and more than likely when you reach a difficult situation where it appears that you are deadlocked, you will find that it is only an impasse and with some creativity and good negotiation skills, you can go beyond the impasse and continue toward your deal or resolution.

The key, when looking at Dawson’s definitions, is that an impasse is complete disagreement on one issue that is threatening the negotiation. Most negotiations, if not all, involve more than one issue, and with complex negotiations you’ll find issues within issues and multiple layers of issues all through the deal. It’s easy to become fixated on a single issue, and become so frustrated that you believe you are deadlocked, and then give up on the entire negotiation. You must recognize there are other issues, or if not, create them. Negotiations with only one issue are more easily looked at with a winner and a loser, with multiple issues, it is much simpler to reach win-win agreements that make both parties more satisfied.

The Stalemate is a bit different. Parties are not ready to quit yet, but the negotiations are sort of going in circles with no one making any progress toward cementing a deal, finding a solution, or resolving the problem. For stalemates, effective negotiators have strategies to help the negotiations move forward again. In a stalemate, both parties are still trying to find a solution. However, neither can see a way to move forward. The fear of stalemates is the frustrations they can cause, leading to parties believing they are at an impasse or worse, a deadlock.

Once you have defined these terms, it is easier to recognize what is happening during a negotiation. You will then be able to use strategies and tactics to overcome these roadblocks to successful deal making. First understand the problem, then work both toward solving and resolving it.

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