'Split-It-Down-The-Middle' is a great tactic... but it's a lousy strategy.

Everybody's Heard of It

If there's one thing we all know about negotiation it's the "Split it down the middle" (SIDTM) technique. You're very close on the purchase of your first car (in my case, a 1956 Thunderbird in 1966), the difference between what the seller is asking [$850 for the T-bird] and what the buyer is offering [$750 is what I'd offered], and so one party offers and the other party accepts an inducement to "split it down the middle."

Everybody's Used It

In the realm of give and take it's almost genetic. On every continent, in every culture, in every kind of transaction the SIDTM technique is known and practiced.

What Makes it Attractive?

Why does SIDTM work? What dimensions of this technique cause it to be so universally embraced?

Fairness is first. The element of fairness in SIDTM is extant in the fact that both parties give and both parties get something. The SIDTM compromise works for both parties. We obtain a concession... we grant a concession. What could be more fair?

Time savings is also an important and valuable consideration in SIDTM. We all have an internal time clock running within our gut. There comes a juncture in many negotiations when we conclude the expenditure of additional time on a particular transaction- becomes counter-productive... Let's just "split it down the middle and get this thing over with!"

Finally, SIDTM is the transition from negotiation to performance. The closure provided allows us to begin to receive the benefit of our bargains.

It's a Great Tactic, an Awful Strategy

This wonderful tactic, however, can lead us into an awful strategy. Why? It seems as though the combination of an almost universal death of negotiation training and the almost universal knowledge of SIDTM have resulted in a default strategy....

When our strategy is to "split the difference" between our offer and our counterpart's offer it naturally follows that we would establish a relatively extreme position. Since we know we will not get what we ask for... we ask for a lot more than we really think is reasonable.

Unless our counterpart is ignorant, the natural response to our extreme position is to state an equally extreme position in the opposite direction.

Now what? We expend tremendous amounts of energy defending our clearly extreme position. Until when? Until a mutually perceived deadline. Then what? Some form of SIDTM behavior with predictable distasteful results.

The buyer returns to his or her office and grouses "I could have bought for less if I'd held out a little longer." The seller returns to his or her office and complains "I could have sold for more if I'd held out a little longer."

What an awful strategy! We establish extreme positions, we defend these silly positions until some perceived deadline. Then we split the difference in some fashion with predictable dissatisfaction. There must be a better way!

Reject the Strategy... Retain the Tactic

The source of our solution is to understand the difference between the kinds of issues presented in any particular negotiation scenario. Principle issues and positional issues.

SIDTM is most useful in positional negotiation. However, principle negotiation should logically come first.

Fisher and Ury in their wonderful book Getting to Yes provide a concise explanation of the difference between principle and positional issues. The book is a tremendous addition to your negotiation library.

In short, principle issues reflect the values, objections, decisions, and interests we feel support our contemplated transactions. Positional issues represent the actual amount, place, time, or concessionary equilibrium we finally reach.

Sister is at home doing her homework at the kitchen table. Brother comes home and turns on his "Offspring" CD at the 150 decibel level.

Her position: "Turn that off! I can't do my homework with all that noise."

His position: "I live here too and I want to listen to my music!"

This is a common set of stand-off positions with no real apparent compromise.

Brother and sister could agree to specific times for homework and music listening. Mom and dad could eject one or both of them from the house. However, neither of these solutions offers long term satisfaction.

They could split it down the middle... turn the music down half-way. However, this situation is only a partial resolution of their differences. The SIDTM solution builds in the seeds of mistrust.

If he leaves the living room she goes in and turns the music down. When he comes back he notices the reduced volume level and turns the music back up... not to the previous level but to an even higher level.

She wants silence. He wants to listen to real loud music. How can they both get what they want?

Headphones! Headphones allow both parties to have all of what they are looking for in this everyday example of give and take.

If we can become clear as to what we really want in a transaction and why we want it, and if we can become clear as to what our counterpart wants, and why; then, a "headphones" type solution is highly probable.

Application of the New Strategy

In sales and marketing this new principle driven strategy is seen in the consultative selling approach. We learn what our customers want rather than simply selling them what we have.

When our customers complain we make in-depth inquiry into the sources of dissatisfaction rather that simply waving a policy manual at them.

When we seek to negotiate behavior in the workplace we honestly attempt to understand the reasons behind our employees conduct rather than making threats about their continued employment.

A "headphones" type solution is potentially possible in almost every negotiation scenario. But, we need to spend time and effort working toward that solution. If not, we fall back into the old patterns.

SIDTM is a great tactic... but it's a lousy strategy.

By the way, I bought the T-Bird for $800 and sold it two years later for $1,200... thought I was a genius! I wish I still owned that car today.

Author's Bio: 

John Patrick Dolan, Attorney at Law, Certified Specialist Criminal Law, CSP, CPAE is a recognized expert in the field of negotiation. He travels throughout the world presenting lively keynote speeches and in-depth training programs for business and legal professionals. Call 1-888-830-2620 for more information.