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Competitive Negotiation


Disciplines > Negotiation > Negotiation Styles > Competitive Negotiation

Zero sum | Substance only | Competitive strategy | See also


In competitive negotiation, the approach is to treat the process as a competition that is to be won or lost. Competitive negotiation may be be known as distributive, positional or hard-bargaining negotiation.

Zero sum

The basic assumption of competitive negotiation is that it is a 'zero sum game'. That is, the people involved believe that there is a fixed amount to be gained which both people desire, and if one person gains then the other person loses. It is like arguing over a pie: if one person gets a piece of the pie then the other person does not.


The outcome of zero-sum negotiation is defined in terms of winners and losers. One person gets what they want and feels smug (or maybe a bit guilty), while the other person loses out and feels cheated or a failure.

Substance only

In competitive negotiation, the substance of what is being traded is the only real concern, and dealings are done in a hard and 'what I can get' way.

A way of thinking zero-sum is to translate everything into financial terms. Thus, for example, if you are buying or selling a car, you think first in terms of its resale value. The only perceived negotiable for many competitive negotiators is price.

Unimportant relationship

In competitive negotiation, the relationship between the people is unimportant. They do not care about one another or what the other thinks about them. This typically occurs in one-off sales where 'caveat emptor' is a key rule.

To show concern for the other person is to show weakness that may be taken advantage of. This can lead to trickery where false concern is shown, and reactions where any show of concern is perceived as likely trickery (and can lead to attempts of two-faced double-dealing).

Competitive strategy

Competitive strategies that seek substantial gains focus on hard exchange and may descend into deceptive double-dealing.

Hard exchange

In a hard exchange, what is being exchanged is clear and above-board and both sides agree to the deal. There is no trickery or pressure and the players agree to the exchange, albeit with one person potentially more satisfied than the other.

The hard exchange is like a fair fight. Both players accept the rules and play cleanly (although perhaps based more on a respect for the rules than respect for the other person). This may be encouraged by potential punishment for double dealing, such as in the litigation that sellers may face.

Double dealing

The alternative method of competitive negotiation is to throw the rulebook out of the window and resort to tricky approaches such as aggression and deception. Either party may tell lies and use verbal or even physical persuasive methods. We are all bound by internal values and the level of trickery or physicality used will vary along a spectrum. Although we may find this distasteful, we all know that it happens and many of us have been less than fully truthful in our negotiations.

See also

One-off selling, Aggressive behavior


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