How to Come up with Your BATNA

by Gordon White, the conflictjourney.com

In their groundbreaking book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury introduced the concept of Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). The authors present the BATNA, which is also applicable to conflict situations, as a more useful and powerful concept than having a ‘bottom line’.

The bottom line is the worst deal that is still acceptable to you. Being informed by your bottom line has several liabilities. In order to settle most disputes bottom lines have to move, so if you become fixated on one, you are essentially blocking settlement. Yet, to move away from your bottom line can mean abandoning a commitment to yourself. This may create a difficult to resolve dilemma for yourself. Furthermore, settlements often require imagination; but bottom line thinking is usually deficient in this needed quality. Finally, if the other party will not meet your bottom line, you may be left without an alternative.

The benefit of a BATNA is at first counter intuitive because it may seem like planning for failure instead of success. Developing a BATNA means to thoroughly consider, research and prepare for another means of meeting your interests – other than through dialogue or communication with the other party(ies).

For example, in purchasing your dream condominium, your bottom line could be $450,000., which would be the most you think you are willing to pay. Your BATNA on the other hand could be:

  • Another condominium not as ideal, but currently available for $440,000
  • Getting a real estate agent to take over the search for you
  • Walking away from the search for an ideal residence altogether, and taking a one year motor cycle trip around Europe until the market improves

With one of these as your favourite alternative to paying the $470,000 asking price on your ideal condo, you are in stronger place in the negotiation. If $455,000 becomes possible you ask yourself: How does this compare now to my alternative? You now compare the potential deal with something that you have researched and planned that you can do, no matter how the negotiation proceeds and how the other party responds.

The three possible BATNAs above illustrate three types of BATNAs that I think I have identified:

  1. Another one of the same thing (another condominium)
  2. Another process (agent instead of direct communication)
  3. Walk away option (motorcycle trip)

These three types of alternatives are also considerations in all conflicts as well as what is understood as negotiation. In the next article I will look at applications of the BATNA to workplace conflict.

Gordon White

Gordon White Consulting

Gordon White is the principal of Gordon White Consulting in Victoria, B.C. He is a mediator and organizational development consultant who offers team development programs and negotiation training. He also teaches a course in Conflict Analysis and Management at Royal Roads University. Gordon is currently creating an online conflict management course for large organizations. He blogs regularly at theconflictjourney.com. You can follow him on Twitter @valueconflict, and reach him at gcwhite@telus.net or (250) 389-6231.

Readers are cautioned not to rely upon this article as legal advice nor as an exhaustive discussion of the topic or case.  For any particular legal problem, seek advice directly from your lawyer or in-house counsel.  All dates, contact information and website addresses were current at the time of original publication.