“Know When to Hold Em, Know When To Fold Em:” Patience and Judgement in Negotiation

October 25, 2017 By Irma Tyler Wood

Paraphrase of a line from a country music song, made famous by Kenny Rogers

Although the line in the song is about a card game, poker to be exact, the two attributes Kenny Rogers is singing about, patience and judgement, are critical attributes for successful negotiation.  Why is patience important?  Any negotiation is like a puzzle to which a negotiator has only some of the pieces.  The other party or parties to the negotiation hold the pieces that will help a negotiator determine whether to, “hold em,” i.e., continue the negotiation because an agreement is possible, or, “fold em,” i.e., walk away from the negotiation, because an agreement that satisfies key interests and achieves key goals will not be possible.  To get the critical pieces of the puzzle on the table, prepare more questions than answers. 

How to remain patient during critical negotiations?  Begin by assuming that you do not have all the information you need to make a wise decision about the negotiation.  Assume that your initial task is therefore, not to reach agreement, but to gather that information.  Ask yourself, “What don’t I know that I need to know to make a wise decision?”  Formulate open ended questions designed to elicit that information.  Put those questions in writing.    

When you meet with the other parties to the negotiation, ask at least two process questions:  Ask,

1.      “If our negotiations were successful, how would you know it?”


2.      “What data will we need to make a wise decision?” 

After asking other process questions like:

  • What issues will we need to discuss to reach an agreement?
  • Who should be at the negotiating table?
  • Who are constituents not at the table?
  • Who are likely allies or opponents of what we want to negotiate?
  • What is the process within your organization for deciding whether to say yes or not to any negotiation deal we might come to? 
  • Who is the decision-maker, etc?  

As you ask questions, the other party’s answers will generate more questions in your mind.  Take your time and ask each one.

Knowledge is power and so the other negotiator/s may be reluctant to answer the questions you are asking.  Three ways to get them to open up:

  1. Model the behavior you want.  Be prepared to strategically share answers to the questions you are asking.  Explain what’s important to you and what you hope to accomplish in the negotiation. 
  2. Explain why you are asking specific questions, i.e., if we are going to get an agreement, it will have to satisfy both of us, so I need to understand what’s important to you. 
  3. Test assumptions you are making about their interests and concerns by making statements that end with a question.  For example, “I’m assuming the most important issue for your team is … is that right?” 

Questions allow a negotiator to be patient as he/she seeks answers rather than agreement.  The answers to those questions, or the lack thereof, equip a negotiator with the judgement needed to know when to walk away rather than waste his or her time or whether to continue to negotiate.