Splitting The Difference In Negotiation: A Double-Edged Sword


Negotiation is an art that requires skill, tact, and strategy. One common tactic often employed in negotiations is the proposal to “split the difference.” This is where both parties agree to meet halfway. For example, if the seller wants $100,000 and the buyer is offering $80,000, splitting the difference means that they would settle at $90,000.

In this article, we explore the advantages and disadvantages of splitting the difference, and how to make the most of this strategy in negotiations.

Uncovering Hidden Value

As negotiation expert Patrick Tinney points out, when someone suggests splitting the difference, they may be inadvertently revealing that they have more to give. This means there could be additional value on the table for you to claim. Instead of accepting the proposal outright, use it as a starting point to dig deeper and continue the negotiation. By asking the other party to explain why they’re offering to split the difference, you can gain valuable information that could help you secure a better deal.

Triggering Reciprocity and Signaling Fairness

Although some may say never split the difference, there may be situations where the maneuver has validity. Doug Witten, a bilingual mediator and arbitrator of civil disputes, believes that splitting the difference can be effective in certain contexts, as it can trigger reciprocity and signal fairness. When both parties are willing to stretch, it can push the negotiation past a stalemate and towards a resolution. In such cases, the act of splitting the difference can be seen as a gesture of goodwill and a means to reach an equitable outcome.

Context Matters

The effectiveness of splitting the difference as a negotiation strategy depends heavily on context. It’s essential to consider the amount of value being divided and the specific circumstances surrounding the negotiation. Keep in mind that the proposal to split the difference should not be the end of the conversation, but rather a stepping stone to explore further possibilities.

Avoiding Pitfalls

While splitting the difference can be beneficial in some cases, it’s crucial to avoid the pitfalls associated with this strategy. First and foremost, do not leave any value on the table. Be prepared to ask questions and seek more information about the other party’s reasoning behind their proposal. Additionally, be aware of the psychological effects of splitting the difference, as it can create a sense of false fairness that may lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Maximizing the Strategy

To make the most of splitting the difference in negotiation, consider the following tips:

  1. Recognize the signal: Understand that when someone proposes to split the difference, it could mean there’s more value to be claimed.
  2. Keep negotiating: Use the proposal as a starting point to continue the negotiation, rather than settling immediately.
  3. Seek information: Ask the other party to explain their reasoning behind the proposal and gather more details to strengthen your position.
  4. Evaluate context: Assess the specific circumstances and the value at stake before deciding whether splitting the difference is an appropriate strategy.
  5. Maintain a balance: Strive for a fair outcome while ensuring that you’re not leaving any value on the table.

Splitting the difference can be a double-edged sword in negotiations. On one hand, it can signal that there’s more value to be claimed, and on the other, it can trigger reciprocity and convey a sense of fairness. To maximize the benefits of this strategy, it’s essential to recognize the signals, continue negotiating, gather information, evaluate the context, and strike a balance between fairness and value. By adopting a thoughtful and strategic approach, you can navigate the complexities of negotiation and ensure that you achieve the best possible outcome for all parties involved.

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