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Navigating an Impasse

The ask-and-offer process can break a stalemate.

Key points

  • How do you move forward to a compromise when you have reached an impasse?
  • The ask-and-offer process is effective in a variety of contexts.
  • Taking turns to express a wish and make an offer can promote understanding and help break a deadlock.
  • The ask and offer process works in personal and business situations, supporting empathy and connection leading to substantial growth and progress

Last month I wrote about the importance of preparing in advance for key and, especially, emotionally charged conversations—how the discussion will be more productive and successful if we review differing assumptions, goals, and expectations ahead of time. The understanding that we all bring a unique lens and our past experiences to each engagement can work to fundamentally shift our approach, softening our delivery and ultimately leaving us more open and curious. This curiosity can create an atmosphere of deeper engagement and connection in which the different meanings that each of us ascribes to issues and people can be navigated so true common ground, compromise, and agreement can be found.

This is all for the better, of course, assuming it happens that way.

Sometimes, though, even the best-prepared conversations can end at an impasse, breaking down in a way that seems insurmountable. What then?

Polina Zimmerman/Pexel
Source: Polina Zimmerman/Pexel

This is when we should utilize a process that has proven to be a tried and true way forward in all kinds of blocked interactions: the ask and offer (and, only if necessary, the non-negotiable). I have seen this be successful in work with families and in professional settings, between warring couples and ideologically opposed business strategists. It may not solve the differing positions or opinions in one go, but it usually breaks the stalemate, allowing for movement, a deeper understanding, and the beginning of a way forward. The concept is not complicated, but careful management of the different steps is key.

Let’s look at how it works, including potential pitfalls and positive outcomes.

First, each side needs to state a goal and identify a mutual goal. The more specific the better, but if there is too much difference to identify a shared goal (hence the impasse in the first place) then that shared goal can simply be to come to an acceptable compromise or to make progress from the present stand-off.

Second, taking turns, each side or participant states an ask—what they want or need from the other to reach that goal— and an offer—what they themselves can change or do to help in the achievement of the goal. No one should respond until both or all participants have had their turn.

If absolutely necessary, this can also be the time to identify a non-negotiable, but I would caution that this is used only when it is really necessary as it will tend to intensify the power struggle of the stand-off we’re trying to break through. If it is necessary, don’t draw up a list. Choose just one deal-breaker.

Ariadne Calvo-Platero
Source: Ariadne Calvo-Platero

This process gives each side an opportunity to crystallize what they really need into a single requestthe ask—and also to see what might be their own contribution to the shifting the impasse—the offer. It gives the participants an opportunity for a reset, allowing each side of a discussion to shift a little and focus on the most important aspects of what they need. It signals a preparedness to work at finding a solution, creating space for empathy, and introducing a formula that should ensure each participant is listening to the other.

It also demonstrates willingness, which often goes a long way.

As I said, the concept isn’t difficult, but a little discipline in managing the different parts of the process is useful as it will help each side to feel heard and ensure that they’ve had equal time.

One example of its use

I’ve recently worked with a small founder-run company that is navigating the sticky process of when and how to get employees back in the office after a year of pandemic restrictions. There were several different perceptions of the risks involved, the levels of risk tolerance, and the meanings attached to requiring or being required to return to work. There were also many views concerning the effectiveness of employees either in or out of the office. When an impasse was reached in negotiations, it was in part due to emotions running high and some participants having resorted to ultimatums. We employed the ask-and-offer process. Essentially, once the reactivity had calmed down and the company founders made clear what they really needed—some in-office meetings to allow the team to see in person the visual materials they were using—and the employees were also able to express their needs—some continued flexibility to avoid commutes and stay home, there was a shift in the tone. Each made offers: the founder-owners offered to beef up the air conditioning units and schedule a later start to the work day when staff would be in the office; the staff agreed to be in the office for a minimum of two days a week year-round, up to three in their "high season." Non-negotiables became a topic of bonding as they turned humorous with one side offering birthdays as guaranteed at-home days and the other promising to continue to bring in their usual homemade offerings for office events. The end result of all the negotiations and the resolution was a deeper understanding of the different points of view, the requirements to reach a compromise, and a recommitment to the process of talking in order to share specific needs and opinions. As a final vote of confidence, the company has pledged to use this technique as a regular part of their annual assessment and review.

And a brief, more personal example

Think of a couple discussing a family visit more appealing to one than the other. A possible ask is for the other to “come and be friendly to everyone,” with the offer being to cap the visit at two hours. The counter ask-and-offer response could be to agree to the visit and to chat to everyone but to “guarantee that I’m not sitting next to Cousin Ed." Possible non-negotiable on both sides? “We don’t talk politics!”

So, the next time you’re stuck, try the ask-and-offer process and see if it doesn’t shift the impasse and get you back on track.

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