16/06/2014 07:42 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 06:59 BST

The Art of Timing in Negotiation

(written with Giuseppe Conti)

click to see Leonardo's Last Supper

Planning a trip to Italy to discover some Renaissance paintings? You better plan at least three months in advance if you want to see Leonardo's Last Supper in Milan, as there is a huge waiting list.

What contributed to make this painting a masterpiece? Leonardo's technical mastery and innovative painting techniques are certainly key factors. There is an additional element that differentiates this painting from the many others that depict the Last Supper. Other artists chose to capture the moments during that night with the deepest religious significance, such as the blessing of the bread or the washing of the disciples' feet. Leonardo, on the other hand, chose a different timing: the moment of greatest tension that night, when Jesus says, "Someone is going to betray me." Compared with other paintings of the Last Supper which illustrate thirteen figures seated orderly around a table, Leonardo's choice of timing captures a moment of heightened emotion--the disciples' faces filled with shock and anger at the prospect of betrayal [1].

As in art, timing can greatly impact the results of a negotiation. There are five key questions negotiators should consider:

1) Is it the right time to make a deal? Unless you are compelled to make a purchase due to an urgent business need (e.g., to procure raw materials needed for manufacturing your products), you can consider different options. Negotiating a sizable deal with a large, publicly-traded IT company might be more advantageous near the end of the quarter or fiscal year, when it will be more motivated to close the deal. You might also want to consider the economic cycle. If the economy is strong, it may not be the right time to sign a long-term agreement with a management consulting company, as it is likely to have many clients and be less inclined to make a special offer. Similarly, the best time to purchase a boat is in October (unless you live in the Southern which case, choose April).

2) What happens as time goes by? When approaching a negotiation, you want to be clear on whether your power increases or decreases as time progresses. Which of the two parties has the tightest deadline? For instance, a person who puts his house on the market ahead of relocating abroad is likely to be more demanding at the beginning of the process and more flexible as the date of the move approaches. When considering long-term business relationships and economic business cycles, a quick rule of thumb is this: if your power is expected to diminish over time (e.g., the market is moving from a seller's to a buyer's market) make a longer-term agreement; if your power is expected to increase, make a shorter-term agreement.

3) What is the right sequence of topics? You can derive a lot of power from shaping the agenda of a business negotiation meeting. To manage this effectively, you must first be clear about your objectives and the relative importance of the different topics you want to cover. This can help you to decide which topic to address first or early in the process (e.g., cover the most important topic after you have given something away or after the other party becomes excited about the opportunity). Next, role play the negotiation with a colleague to assess the flow of the meeting and make the necessary adjustments. Should you start with some topics where you are confident to reach agreement and then deal with the more difficult ones? Do you want to leave a less important topic for the end and get a concession as the counterpart wants to close the deal? By exploring various options, you can plan the best sequence for the meeting's agenda.

4) What is the right timing for offers, counteroffers and concessions? Ideally, both parties use the initial stages of a negotiation to discover pertinent information, such as underlying interests, assumptions, constraints, and bargaining zones. However, when is the right moment to propose closing the deal? If we do it too early in the process, it may look like a concession (e.g., saying "let's split the difference") that the other party may refuse while also learning that we are prepared to make a big concession. However, if we wait too long to make a proposal, we run the risk of appearing uninterested in a deal or trying to back the other party into a corner (especially as a deadline approaches), provoking the other party's anger and unwillingness to accept other solutions, especially if their ego gets in the way. Some concessions--if timed well--may provoke a reciprocal response ("the golden rule") from the other party. Making a concession on an issue important to your opponent, with the understanding that you'll receive an in-kind response to an issue important to you, can be an effective way to achieve a win-win outcome in the negotiation.

Another important element revolves around how multiple issues are addressed in a complex negotiation. Some negotiators prefer a linear approach to negotiation, efficiently addressing and resolving each issue in turn. Other negotiators will go back and forth, combining issues, and revisiting seemingly decided ones. These tendencies can be generalized by national culture (e.g., Germans vs. French) and can lead to frustration for the other party. Gathering information about the other party in advance, and jointly developing an agenda prior to the start of the negotiation will help manage both parties' expectations.

5) When is the right time to request a time-out? A time-out or caucus can be a very effective tactic for shifting the momentum, while helping you rethink your approach and rebuild your confidence. We get to choose if and when we negotiate; this is true at the start as well as during a negotiation. If the negotiation becomes emotionally charged, or you feel your opponent is using questionable tactics, you have every right to request a time-out. Failing to do so hurts you, and in the long-run, your relationship with the other party. Before you reach your boiling point, say "I'm sensing a lot of frustration and anger in the room. I'm concerned that if we continue, we may both say things which may impede future dealings between our organizations. Let's take a 15-minute break, and resume at 11:30a, ok?" If the other party resists, you should insist--for the benefit of both parties. During the time-out, take a few deep breaths, review your notes, and confer with your colleague if possible. When you return to the negotiation, the tension will have decreased and further constructive conversations should ensue. A time-out is also warranted when new information or a novel proposal comes to light. Rather than making a quick (and possibly irrational) decision, you are better off taking a time-out to consider the new proposal and align with your colleagues on next steps.

To deal effectively with timing in negotiation preparation is key, and the rest comes from experience--successes as well as failures. Negotiation is a practical skill: you have to do it often to do it well. And, like Leonardo da Vinci, you will develop remarkable outcomes over time.

[1] Strategies of Genius: Leonardo da Vinci, CD by Robert Dilts, 2004.

About the authors:

Formerly professor of leadership at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, Dr. Suzanne de Janasz joins Seattle University this year as the Gleed Distinguished Professor of Business, where she continues her teaching and research on leadership, mentoring, negotiation, and balancing work/family. Her first text, Interpersonal Skills in Organizations, is now in its 5th edition and she published Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in 2013. Suzanne is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post and has published articles in multiple journals, including Harvard Business Review. You can follow her on @SuzannedeJanasz and reach her at

Giuseppe Conti is a recognized expert in the field of Negotiation and regular lecturer at top-ranked European Business Schools, including Cambridge, ESADE, HEC Geneva, HEC Paris, IMD, INSEAD, Oxford, RSM, and SDA Bocconi. Managers from over 70 different countries have attended his highly interactive and pragmatic workshops. He is a seasoned negotiator combining academic content with a rich practitioner experience from his senior procurement and commercial leadership roles with blue chip multinationals (Procter & Gamble, Novartis, Merck). He is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. You can follow him on @GiuseppeConti16 and reach him at