The Power of Making Commitments

Power of commitment

    Good listening skills create an advantage in life we learn so much more when we understand the feelings and concerns that come across when someone is talking. Just like when we read a good book, we want to make sure we're still and attuned to the actual words, rather than skimming and jumping around without paying attention.

    Great negotiators increase the amount of information they have about the interests expressed by the other side by listening. A better understanding of someone's interests creates clarity about what's important and gives us a chance to increase our power.

    We make trade-offs in business every day often without thinking about options or making interests explicit  even our own. Reaching a forced compromise when working on a contract, for example a scope of work, or preparing to ask for a raise, even when planning the family vacation, is not as powerful as achieving agreement on the best possible results.

    When we focus on interests rather than positions, or assumptions, we have the opportunity to invent new outcomes. Interests are not necessarily monetary they could be driven by love for the work, or lifestyle choices  it's a good idea to keep an open mind, rather than assuming everyone is motivated by the same reasons, even in business.

    Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Process talk about power triggers in Getting to Yes. They say there's power in inventing elegant options where the interests of both parties dovetail each other. A good best alternative option to an agreement (BATNA) empowers us to walk away to a more attractive solution for us when things take a turn for the worst:

In addition to improving your overall BATNA (what you will do if the negotiations fail to reach an agreement), you should also prepare your micro-BATNA” — if no agreement is reached at this meeting, what is the best outcome? It helps to draft in advance a good exit line to use if a meeting is inconclusive.


Efforts to improve one's own alternatives and to lower the other side's estimate of theirs are critical ways to enhance our negotiating power.

    To be clear, the goal for removing an incentive that weakens our best alternative is to create a fair outcome, not exploit the other party. Negotiations that consider the interests of both parties are more powerful. Fairness enhances our reputation. But that is only part of the deal. The other part is commitment — when we make a promise, we hold ourselves to it.

    The commitments we make enhance our power in three ways:

1. we can commit to what we will do, which is within our control — this is the one offer we're willing to accept, even as we don't exclude others. A concrete offer is our best chance for success.

Say for example that a project is going longer than anticipated based on scope. We could offer to add scope at an incremental cost. To reach agreement, it's enough to say yes to that offer. But we're also open to capping what we consider a deliverable to hit a certain time frame if the other party is not open to tapping additional budgets. It's a good idea to provide our BATNA as well to clarify the consequences of a no,” in whichever form it comes (sometimes it's a studied “not yes.”)

2.with extreme care, we can also be explicit about what we will not do this comes at a potential relationship cost.

In an ideal world, the alternative option we offer is fair, it takes into account the interests of both parties. For the example above it would mean delivering the most complete project possible, given the circumstances, resources and delta between promises made/kept. When we talk about what we will not do, we're in a take it or leave it mode.” This commitment is a last resort kind of power — we make it after we've explored other options, as in the example above, and when we have no choice. A project have a starting and end date. Overruns may imperil other projects and we're called to make trade-offs, for example our energy trying to do too many things at once has a cost.

3. and we can clarify the commitments we'd like the other party to make this is where we take into account the promises made.

We want to be clear about what will satisfy their part of the deal. It's an if/then kind of scenario. If we do what is on offer, for example the most complete project possible within a certain time frame (we can choose to be generous), then the other party will commit to wrapping it up and honoring an end date as final.

    Each source of power should fit with the others. Fisher and Ury say:

if a negotiator has a strong BATNA, he or she may confront the other side with it, threatening to walk away unless the last offer is accepted. This is likely to detract from the persuasive power of the negotiator's argument about why the offer is fair. If you're going to communicate your BATNA, it would be better to do so in ways that respect the relationship, leave open the possibility of two-way communication, underscore the legitimacy of your last offer, suggest how your offer meets the other side's interests, and so forth.

The total impact of such negotiation power as you have will be greater if each element is used in ways that reinforce the others.

    The commitments we make have more power when we're fair and reasonable, even as we're firm in keeping them. It's easier to be effective when we believe in what we're saying and doing because they're rooted in our values and personal culture. What we say and do speak about us as a person.

    Getting to yes is a process that involves a wise agreement that is efficient and improves the relationships of both parties. Getting to Yes is a useful primer on how to think about negotiation and what to do when things go smoothly and when we hit a few bumps.