Negotiating the Impossible

If you’ve ever tried to convince someone of your point of view (and who hasn’t?), then Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without money or muscle) by Deepak Malhotra is a must-read. Negotiating the Impossible is a high-value book that offers its readers accessible and practical lessons in the art of negotiation.

Conflict is a fact of life

Whether you’re trying to get your small child to bed or bring warring factions to the table, almost anyone can learn to become a better negotiation partner.

Negotiating the Impossible isn’t a how-to book of manipulative techniques for short-term gain. Negotiation isn’t about haggling, nor is it a zero-sum game with winners and losers. This book focuses on finding mutually acceptable solutions through understanding and partnering— the essence of which is strategic human interaction.

Negotiating the Impossible is divided into three parts: The Power of Framing, The Power of Process, and The Power of Empathy. Each part is introduced by a definition of its title.


Fame is the psychological lens through which we assess circumstances. The way in which you articulate your proposal is as important as what you’re proposing.  This is because our biases and worldview are not so much truth, but a story we tell ourselves.

Situations look different depending on social or political narrative. One group’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

Identities and interests are socially constructed. We should be aware of how we make self-serving judgments based on the story our particular group tells itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the differing narratives of political parties. In their classic linguistics book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson identify politically right and left narratives as being “strict father” and “nurturing mother” respectively. Each party assigns meaning according to its own worldview.


Both sides should commit to a clearly defined process before discussing substantive issues, but the process needs to be flexible. Negotiating is an investment in commitment. Rigidity such as a demand for precision, consensus, or early agreement can stall proceedings.  Before getting to the substance of the negotiation, have a strategy for both processes and their implementation.

Edward de Bono’s book, Conflicts: A Better Way to Resolve Them, writes that negotiation is a design problem. Participants come together to design a solution. At the end of Negotiating the Impossible, Mr. Malhotra tells a story of the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. The only thing preventing progress after decades of the attempted agreement was one small problem.

Both Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein couldn’t agree on where to sit at the negotiating table. Paisley wanted to sit opposite his rival Adams. Adams wanted to sit next to Paisley so they looked like colleagues.

The solution was an innovative design. A creative official designed a diamond-shaped table so the two could sit next to each other and opposite each other at the same time. The lesson here is that even after centuries of conflict, a seemingly insignificant problem can derail the best-laid plans. Don’t discount what you might think is insignificant.

Process before substance is a good rule of thumb. But you can have too much of a good thing. Even a business deal that’s right for both sides can get bogged down in process negotiations. One side may want to quickly decide, while the other wants to take longer. Here the author suggests reaching for a reversible and imperfect process. Or, work on process and substance at the same time.

The process should aim to keep up forward momentum. Efforts should be maintained after negotiations are concluded because preserving the peace needs ongoing investment.


Effective negotiators recognize human differences and work toward understanding them. Mr. Malhotra points out why competing stories must be acknowledged. Legitimacy relies on narrative.

On one occasion he tells of his landing in India. The customs declaration form posed the usual questions. And then an unusual one: Do you have any maps of disputed territory?

Google maintains thirty-two region-specific maps around the world to comply with local laws. Disputed boundaries are seen differently depending on which side you’re on.  The author’s larger point is how the world looks different from any vantage point. Empathy is considering how situations are seen from another perspective.

Disputes are easier to preempt than resolve. Humility and respect can be injected into negotiations between parties who disagree on almost everything. Both sides should work to understand the other’s narratives and interests.

Style and structure

If you’ve read Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, you’ll probably like this book. What sets this book apart is how well ideas are organized and explained. Mr. Malhotra illustrates his points with stories. Questions keep readers engaged.  His writing is clear, coherent, and consistent.

Anyone considering writing a non-fiction book for a business readership can learn from a close inspection of the structure of this book.  Parts I and II contain six short chapters. Part III has seven. At the end of each part is a one- or two-page summary of lessons in helpful bullet-point lists.

Berrett-Koehler, the book’s publisher, has done a nice job with the hardcover design and layout.

There is much to consider in Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without money or muscle). This reviewer will be referring to it often.

Deepak Malhotra is a consultant with a global practice, author, and Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the editors or author of this book.