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Why Negotiations Fail


Negotiations are an effective way of making a good bargain or at least reaching a compromise among stakeholders. They take place not only in global politics and economics but also in everyday life when, for example, a person negotiates future wages at a job interview or resolves a conflict with a spouse. However, negotiations do not always end with the desired outcome. Sometimes, they may be unsuccessful because the object of the talks is something undebatable, but in other cases, negotiations fail because participators make mistakes during the discussion.

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The aim of this essay is to explore the errors that hinder stakeholders from reaching an agreement throughout the debates. Then, the recent talks between the U.S. and North Korea will be analyzed to identify the mistakes made by the parties, which led to an unsuccessful outcome. The failure to prepare adequately and empathize became the major reason for the negotiation failure.

Reasons for Negotiation Failure

Negotiations are often a challenging task to deal with and, therefore, require specific skills and an understanding of the way people interact with each other and make decisions. The difficulty of relationships between negotiators is that they always have confronting interests, but, at the same time, they need to cooperate with the opposite parties to “identify a mutually agreeable solution and avoid costly impasse” (Thompson, 2019, p. 28). Therefore, the ability of stakeholders to protect their interests while listening and understanding their opponents’ motives has a great influence on the outcome of any negotiation. This section will review how the failure to prepare for the talks, to empathize, manage emotions, and build relationships takes a toll on negotiations.

Inadequate Preparation

Although negotiations may require some skill of improvisation from participators, an unplanned debate is unlikely to end with success. Yiu, Cheung, and Lok (2015) consider the lack of planning to be the major reason for a failed negotiation. The researchers argue that thorough preparation for negotiation helps to prioritize goals and needs adequately and reduce the possibility of unintended reactions (Yiu et al., 2015).

The reasons for insufficient preparedness are “ambiguous interests, confined options, disregard of opponents, and external factors” (Yiu et al., 2015, p. 172). Having ambiguous interests means that negotiators lack a clear understanding of the objectives they need to attain during the talks (Yiu et al., 2015). Knowing the intentions and values of the other party is also important for a favorable outcome (Yiu et al., 2015). Hence, if negotiators fail to clearly define their goals and those of their opponents before the oncoming debate, the negotiation can hardly be successful.

Vague objectives are not the only thing that hinders thorough planning. Another factor that causes inadequate preparation is confined options, meaning that negotiators limit the number of available alternatives (Yiu et al., 2015). When negotiators’ choice is restricted, they are forced to concentrate on one thing and miss other opportunities that could be more favorable for them (Yiu et al., 2015). Disregard of opponents occurs when one party neglects the features of another one (Yiu et al., 2015). In this case, negotiators will be unable to predict the interests and intentions of the opposing party, and the talks will fail (Yiu et al., 2015).

External factors influencing the process of preparation include precedents, opinions of specialists, and norms existing in a particular industry (Yiu et al., 2015). To be well-prepared for debates, stakeholders should be aware of the common procedure of negotiating in their field; otherwise, the talks will result in a failure (Yiu et al., 2015). Thus, the success of negotiations is defined at the preparatory stage.

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Failure to Empathize

Even if negotiators are thoroughly prepared for the debate, they still may fail if they make mistakes during the talks. One of the possible errors is a failure to empathize. Nick Coburn-Palo (2015), who has been the UN consulting diplomat trainer, argues that negotiators often believe that there is the right solution that everyone should consider rationally. However, when stakeholders think so, they get into the trap referred to as “the danger of one story” (Coburn-Palo, 2015).

It means that there is not actually the right solution that will satisfy everyone. Each of the parties has different values and interests, and things that are important for one party may be of no significance to another one. According to Coburn-Palo (2015), to avoid this mistake, negotiators should understand the actual interests of their opponents rather than guess at the possible goals of the opposing parties or impose their own vision on them. Thus, if stakeholders care only about themselves while negotiating and do not take into consideration the values of the other party, the success of the talks will be at risk.

A failure to empathize is related not only to the understanding of the goals of opponents. It is also concerned with external constraints that influence negotiators’ ability to agree to a particular deal (Coburn-Palo, 2015). Participants of negotiation often represent a group of stakeholders. When they agree to some terms during the talks, they will have to explain their decision to their counterparts who did not take part in the debate (Coburn-Palo, 2015).

If negotiators do not take into account the external constraints that exert pressure on the opposing party, they are unlikely to come to an agreement. Furthermore, negotiations tend to fail if one party treats the other one with disrespect and makes it appear a loser in the eyes of others (Coburn-Palo, 2015). It happens when one negotiating party takes advantage of the weaknesses of the other party to win some benefits for itself (Stevenson, 2018). Thus, the ability of negotiators to put themselves in another party’s shoes is crucial for the success of the talks.

Failure to Manage Emotions

Another factor that can contribute to either the success or failure of negotiation is emotions. Coburn-Palo (2015) mentions the 70/30 rule, meaning that the success of the talks is defined by 70 percent of emotional intelligence (EQ) and only 30 percent of IQ. It implies that presenting well-grounded reasons for an agreement is important during the talks, but managing emotions has far greater significance for a favorable outcome of a negotiation.

One of the common emotions that people have to deal with while interacting with opponents is anger. According to Hunsaker (2017), anger can either benefit or harm negotiators, depending on a variety of circumstances. This emotion can lead to opponents’ concessions only if angry negotiators possess high power, so their position allows them to behave in such a way (Hunsaker, 2017). However, when low-power people are angry, they fail to think clearly and cannot perceive their values correctly (Hunsaker, 2017). Therefore, they have difficulty in focusing on the tasks at hand and cannot offer comprehensive solutions to the opposing party (Hunsaker, 2017).

Sometimes, they afford to say vulgar words to their opponents, and even if they eventually come to an agreement, they are less satisfied with it than their not angry counterparts (Hunsaker, 2017). Angry low-power negotiators also receive fewer concessions and risk severing relations with their opponents (Hunsaker, 2017). Coburn-Palo (2015) adds that anger should be an instrument of influence in the talks; therefore, it should be used in batches, only when necessary. Thus, if negotiators fail to control their anger, it may ruin the relationships between parties.

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However, anger is not the only emotion that can spoil negotiation outcomes. Coburn-Palo (2015) says that, sometimes, the members of a negotiating party that reach their desirable terms start to express their excitement before the talks are finished. It is called Duper’s delight, and it may harm the relationships between parties because opponents are likely to feel that they have lost in some way (Coburn-Palo, 2015). Hence, celebrating a victory in front of the opposing party is inappropriate in the negotiation culture.

Failure to Build Relationships

The final mistake that negotiators can make is concerned with a failure to build relationships with opponents, and it is more global than the errors mentioned above because it goes beyond one specific debate. There is a myth that each negotiation is a separate deal (Stevenson, 2018). However, most negotiations do not take place just once; rather, they happen in a series, and stakeholders are likely to meet each other repeatedly (Coburn-Palo, 2015). It implies that if people fail to establish good relationships with the opposing party during one negotiation, they risk not only getting unfavorable results of the current talks but also depriving themselves of potential partners in the future.

There are specific characteristics that distinguish a reliable stakeholder from an untrustworthy one. According to Coburn-Palo (2015), people are prone to establish strong business relationships with those who can get over difficulties if something goes wrong with an agreement and those who are able to laugh at themselves. He also argues that humor at the negotiation is a thing that can dissipate the tension and improve relationships between parties if it is used in a proper way (Coburn-Palo, 2015).

However, if it appears to be inappropriate or offensive for some members of the opposing party, it may put an end to the talks and spoil the relations (Coburn-Palo, 2015). For this reason, it is safer to laugh at oneself because, in this case, one will not offend anyone and will show that one is self-confident enough not to give up in the face of hardships (Coburn-Palo, 2015). Thus, negotiations may fail if stakeholders do not prove themselves to be reliable and insult their counterparts.

An Example of a Failed Negotiation

An example of the talks that failed due to some of the identified mistakes is the recent negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. The heads of the mentioned states, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, met in Hanoi in 2019 to settle the question of the denuclearization of North Korea. North Korea was ready to stop conducting its ballistic missile testing and send the remains of American soldiers back to the U.S. In return, it expected the U.S. to lift economic sanctions against North Korea. However, the U.S. wanted complete denuclearization of the opponent’s country. After two days of negotiating, the two parties reached no agreement.

It seems that this negotiation failed at the very beginning. The North Korean leader failed to predict the behavior and interests of the U.S. party while preparing for the talks (Daminov, 2019). The media often blame Trump for being an incompetent negotiator, so Kim Jong-un might have thought that it would be easy to get concessions in terms of relief from sanctions for partial disarmament (Daminov, 2019). However, the U.S. party was not content with the terms offered by their North Korean counterparts, so they left the negotiation room.

Trump made a mistake that was described above as a failure to empathize. The president failed to learn the actual interests and external constraints of his opponent. Trump, being a prosperous businessman and caring much about the economic situation in the country, was likely to assume that Kim Jong-un was concerned about the same things in North Korea (Metz, 2019). Before going to the Hanoi Summit, Trump wrote on his Twitter, “Chairman Kim realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World” (Metz, 2019, para. 3).

Therefore, Trump was convinced that Kim Jong-un would readily agree to give up its nuclear facilities. However, since the political regime in North Korea is not a democracy but a totalitarian dictatorship, the leader of the country cares about maintaining the cult of his personality, not about the economic prosperity of the nation (Metz, 2019). Thus, the discrepancy between Trump’s perception of Kim Jong-un and the real values of the North Korean leader became another reason for negotiation failure.

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It may also be assumed that the two parties failed to build relationships needed for negotiating successfully. Although Trump seems to consider his relationship with Kim Jong-un to be strong, the fact that they fail to come to an agreement proves the contrary. Perhaps, it is the fault of a long-lasting conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, and it is not easy to mend the relations that have been troubled for decades.

Recommended Practices of Negotiations

To avoid negotiation failures, stakeholders should be aware of the effective practices of conducting talks. First of all, a negotiating party should clearly define its best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) (Thompson, 2019). The BATNA is a course of action that negotiators will perform if the debates will end with no deal (Thompson, 2019). Defining the BATNA is important because it provides stakeholders with a “plan B” in case of unsuccessful negotiations (Thompson, 2019).

It also sets the limits that determine what terms are acceptable for negotiators and what offerings will make them leave the bargaining table (Thompson, 2019). BATNA gives negotiators more power since they can hint at their alternative during the talks and show the opposing party that they have the opportunity to quit debating if no agreement is reached (Thompson, 2019). Therefore, defining the BATNA should be an important step during the preparatory stage of the negotiations.

As for the case of the failed talks between the U.S. and North Korea, it seems that both parties had their BATNAs. Trump was not ready to accept a deal in which North Korea would not get rid of its nuclear facilities. It seems that the best alternative for the U.S. was to hold a summit once again in the future if the agreement was not reached. North Korea seems to have had the same BATNA, but the condition under which it would turn to its best alternative was Trump’s refusal to lift the sanctions. Perhaps, both parties should have elaborated more powerful BATNAs to encourage the opposing side to come to a certain agreement rather than leave the bargaining table with no deal.

Another useful negotiation practice is identifying the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA). The ZOPA is a nominal area in which the limits defined in negotiating parties’ BATNAs overlap (Thompson, 2019). It means that within the ZOPA, an agreement can be reached, but outside of this area, the parties cannot find common grounds and make a deal (Thompson, 2019). Identifying the ZOPA is essential for successful negotiations because it may help to understand whether it makes sense to start talks at all (Thompson, 2019).

Furthermore, if negotiators are aware of the area where they can come to an agreement, the parties are likely to adjust their goals to those of their counterparts. In fact, it is a good practice to make concessions to each other because negotiations that benefit only one of the parties may have detrimental effects in the long run (Stevenson, 2018). Thus, identifying the ZOPA has great significance, and it requires knowing the interests and objectives of the opposing party.

It seems that the U.S. and North Korea failed to understand the goals and values of each other clearly. Therefore, their interests turned out to be outside of the ZOPA, and the agreement could not be reached. To avoid negotiation failure, the parties should have found out what was significant for their opponents and what were limits they had set for themselves before starting the talks. The U.S. could have understood how important it was for Kim Jong-un to keep North Korean nuclear weapons to maintain his authority as the country leader. Upon understanding this, Trump could have asked for gradually renouncing nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions step-by-step.

One more good practice for a successful negotiation is differentiating between positions and interests and convey both of them to the opposing party. The difference between positions and interests is that the former means a stated demand, and the latter is a need that underlies the requirement (Thompson, 2019). According to Thompson (2019), negotiators who state their position and do not explain their interests are more likely to fail at reaching an agreement than those who make their claims reasonable for the opponents. Since the U.S. and North Korea did not make a deal during the negotiations, it may be assumed that they did not explain their requirements. Consequently, the opposing party could not gain insight into the underlying interests and make possible concessions.


To sum up, negotiations are often unsuccessful because stakeholders fail to adequately prepare for the debate, empathize with the opponents, manage their emotions during talks, and establish a partnership with the opposing party. The failed negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea was discussed, and it was found out that the major reason for the failure was a lack of understanding of each other’s interests. To reach an agreement, the parties should have made their BATNAs more powerful, identified the ZOPA, and explain the underlying reasons for their claims to the opponents.


Coburn-Palo, N. (2015). Why negotiations fail [Video file]. Web.

Daminov, I. (2019). North Korea’s negotiating strategy after Hanoi. Web.

Hunsaker, D. A. (2017). Anger in negotiations: A review of causes, effects, and unanswered questions. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 10(3), 220-241.

Metz, S. (2019). The Hanoi summit failed because the U.S. doesn’t understand how Kim sees the world. Web.

Stevenson, W. J. (2018). Operations management (13th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Thompson, L. (2019). Win-win negotiation in a global economy. In N. Pfeffermann (Ed.), New Leadership in Strategy and Communication (pp. 27-36). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Yiu, T. W., Cheung, S. O., & Lok, C. L. (2015). A fuzzy fault tree framework of construction dispute negotiation failure. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 62(2), 171-183.

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