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Types of Negotiating Power

By Nathanael Okhuysen

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When we say someone is in a strong negotiating position, what do we mean? Usually we’re talking about some sort of leverage. It could mean they can walk away easily, or that they have something the other side really wants. This article will discuss the six types of power a negotiator can bring to bear, and show you how to think about them when preparing for your next negotiation.


Six Types of Negotiating Power


Constructive Power

Constructive power is just the ability to provide or facilitate something the other side wants. Examples of constructive power:

  • A buyer has money, and a seller has goods or services.
  • A librarian can show you where to find the documents you need to research.
  • Parking enforcement can tow that car parked in your spot.



Obstructive Power

Obstructive power is the ability to keep the other side from getting something they want or to make something happen that they don’t want. While it is frequently a mirror to constructive power, a party can also take active steps to work against the interests of opposing negotiators. There is a danger to relying on obstructive power: threats can quickly erode trust and make repeated negotiations less productive. Examples of obstructive power:

  • A tenant can withhold rent from a landlord.
  • A bouncer can keep you out of a club.
  • Parking enforcement can tow your car.



Walking Power

Walking power is the freedom to walk away from a negotiation. It is increased by a strong BATNA. It is important not to use this power too forcefully; like obstructive power, it can erode trust. Walking power is like an emergency parachute: it’s best when you don’t even need it. Sources of walking power:

  • A well thought out alternative
  • Low investment in the outcome of the negotiation
  • A desperate opponent



Normative Power

Normative power relies on an appeal to a common value. Fairness and equality are frequently evoked values in negotiations. It doesn’t seem right that one side should get a much better deal, or shoulder a disproportionate share of costs.

While normative power is often overlooked, it is a cornerstone of informal negotiations and compliments other powers well. It is especially important to negotiators who have very little to bargain with in the other power categories.

Fairness and equality aren’t the only values a negotiator can leverage. A party whose proposal would actively benefit society as a whole has normative power as well. Negotiators who appeal to their opponent’s better nature, or invoke lofty ideals of how things “ought” to be, are usually demonstrating or exercising normative power. Some other sources of normative power include:

  • Wide popular approval
  • A history or tradition of a practice
  • The opinion of a recognized authority



Collective Power

Collective power is a capacity to enhance or augment another type of power by reaching out to individuals or group outside the negotiation. This may be a local organization or a wide network of contacts.

A familiar combination of collective and obstructive power are boycotts. A group comes together to obstruct the interests of an organization whose policies they seek to change. Other examples of collective power include:

  • Inter-union solidarity
  • En bloc voting
  • Friends in high places



Personal Power

Personal power is usually what people mean when they say someone is a good negotiator. In some negotiators, this is charisma or sheer force of personality that allows them to win over other parties. It includes abilities of a particular negotiator to work with others, problem solve, or persuade. Personal negotiation power allows the other form of power to be effectively deployed in competitive and collaborative negotiations. An individual with personal power may be:

  • A quick-talking con artist
  • A sensitive and insightful listener
  • A creative and candid problem solver

6 Types of Power

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Power Analysis

Before you go into a negotiation, take some time to analyze where your negotiating power comes from. Analyze your opponent’s negotiating power and compare the two. This will not only reveal if one side has a significant advantage, but also how different types of power on each side could interact.

In this example, the CEO of NextWidget, a small startup, is preparing for the upcoming renewal of the company’s manufacturing provider, Fabricorp. To help him understand his negotiating position, he performs a quick power comparison to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. He sees that neither side really needs the negotiation to be successful, so he should take extra care not to be pressured into an unfavorable deal.

NextWidget v. Fabricorp Power Comparison

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Power in Action

Here is an illustration of the NextWidget/Fabricorp negotiation analyzed in the previous section. You can see how the parties explain their negotiating power in plain language. While this exchange takes place in a face-to-face meeting, it could just as easily be conducted through a series of emails over the course of days or weeks, supplemented by spreadsheets and powerpoints.

Negotiation Power in Action

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Use this template to complete a power comparison before your next negotiation:

Power Comparison Template

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