Settling a dispute: 10 things that can unblock an impasse. Or go horribly wrong.


Negotiating is like making sausages. It is not an attractive process and it is best done in private. If you hit an impasse, find a new option. If need be, invent one. Momentum can be key. Here are 10 possibilities worth considering (culled from Jonathan Powell’s book ‘Talking to Terrorists’). But be careful. They can backfire.

1 Break bread. Preferably, before you meet and not just to talk about the dispute.  You may see things – or each other – differently.  I have even known it to work and make the formal meeting redundant

2 Have a Plan B. Henry Kissinger though used to advise against doing so. Or at least telling your negotiators in advance

3 Find an ambiguous form of words on which everyone can agree while they wait for something to change. Lawyers hate this one. Sooner or later ambiguity becomes destructive. Short-term though, it allows people to interpret the words the way they want

4 Link things. Tie progress on one issue to progress on another but again, long term, this can jam up negotiations

5 Set a deadline – Arbitrary deadlines can be risky but ‘hot-housing’ can be invaluable

6 Lose your temper. But only deliberately. And at the right time

7 Walk out. With one caveat. John Major walked out after Ian Paisley called him a liar and refused to withdraw the smear.  Paisley then staged a sit-in. Unfortunately for Major, the meeting had been taking place in the Cabinet Room at Number 10

8 Consider sunrise & sunset clauses. Where you are up against an issue of fundamental importance to one party that is unacceptable to another, enshrine that issue in the agreement but defer its implementation until that party has met the necessary conditions for transition

9 Trust, but verify. It is precisely because you don’t trust each other that you need to have an agreement. Only implementation creates trust

10 Keep your agreement as simple as a set of home appliance instructions. In fact, keep it simpler

Finally, sell your agreement aggressively. Especially with your own side. As Gerry Adams said, the hardest negotiations are always the ones ‘with your own band’