What BATNAs Are
BATNA is a term coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their 1981 bestseller, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In.1 It stands for “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” BATNAs are critical to negotiation because you cannot make a wise decision about whether to accept a negotiated agreement unless you know what your alternatives are. Your BATNA “is the only standard which can protect you both from accepting terms that are too unfavorable and from rejecting terms it would be in your interest to accept.”2In the simplest terms, if the proposed agreement is better than your BATNA, then you should accept it. If the agreement is not better than your BATNA, then you should reopen negotiations. If you cannot improve the agreement, then you should at least consider withdrawing from the negotiations and pursuing your alternative (though the costs of doing that must be considered as well).
Having a good BATNA increases your negotiating power. Therefore, it is important to improve your BATNA whenever possible. Good negotiators know when their opponent is desperate for an agreement. When that occurs, they will demand much more, knowing their opponent will have to give in. If the opponent apparently has many options outside of negotiation, however, they are likely to get many more concessions, in an effort to keep them at the negotiating table. Thus making your BATNA as strong as possible before negotiating, and then making that BATNA known to your opponent will strengthen your negotiating position.
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess have adapted the concept of BATNA slightly to emphasize what they call “EATNAs” estimated alternatives to a negotiated agreement” instead of “best alternatives.” Even when disputants do not have good options outside of negotiations, they often think they do. (For example, both sides may think that they can prevail in a military struggle, even when one side is clearly weaker, or when the relative strengths are so balanced that the outcome is very uncertain.) Yet, perceptions are all that matter when it comes to deciding whether or not to accept an agreement. If a disputant thinks that he or she has a better option, she will, very often, pursue that option, even if it is not as good as she thinks it is.
BATNA and EATNAs also affect what William Zartman and may others have called “ripeness,” the time at which a dispute is ready or “ripe” for settlement.3 When parties have similar ideas or “congruent images” about what BATNAs exist, then the negotiation is ripe for reaching agreement. Having congruent BATNA images means that both parties have similar views of how a dispute will turn out if they do not agree, but rather pursue their other rights-based or power-based options. In this situation, it is often smarter for them to negotiate an agreement without continuing the disputing process, thus saving the transaction costs. This is what happens when disputing parties who are involved in a lawsuit settle out of court, (which happens in the U.S. about 90 percent of the time). The reason the parties settle is that their lawyers have come to an understanding of the strength of each sides’ case and how likely each is to prevail in court. They then can “cut to the chase,” and get to the same result much more easily and more quickly through negotiation.
On the other hand, disputants may hold “dissimilar images” about what BATNAs exist, which can lead to a stalemate or even to intractability. For example, both sides may think they can win a dispute if they decide to pursue it in court or through force. If both sides’ BATNAs tell them they can pursue the conflict and win, the likely result is a power contest. If one side’s BATNA is indeed much better than the other’s, the side with the better BATNA is likely to prevail. If the BATNAs are about equal, however, the parties may reach a stalemate. If the conflict is costly enough, eventually the parties may come to realize that their BATNAs were not as good as they thought they were. Then the dispute will again be “ripe” for negotiation.
The allure of the EATNA often leads to last-minute breakdowns in negotiations. Disputants can negotiate for months or even years, finally developing an agreement that they think is acceptable to all. But then at the end, all the parties must take a hard look at the final outcome and decide, “is this better than all of my alternatives?” Only if all the parties say “yes,” can the agreement be finalized. If just one party changes his or her mind, the agreement may well break down. Thus, knowing one’s own and one’s opponent’s BATNAs and EATNAs is critical to successful negotiation Determining Your BATNA
BATNAs are not always readily apparent. Fisher and Ury outline a simple process for determining your BATNA:
1. develop a list of actions you might conceivably take if no agreement is reached;
2. improve some of the more promising ideas and convert them into practical options; and
3. select, tentatively, the one option that seems best.4 BATNAs may be determined for any negotiation situation, whether it be a relatively simple task such as finding a job or a complex problem such as a heated environmental conflict or a protracted ethnic conflict.
Fisher and Ury offer a job search as a basic example of how to determine a BATNA. If you do not receive an attractive job offer by the end of the month from Company X, what will you do? Inventing options is the first step to determining your BATNA. Should you take a different job? Look in another city? Go back to school? If the offer you are waiting for is in New York, but you had also considered Denver, then try to turn that other interest into a job offer there, too. With a job offer on the table in Denver, you will be better equipped to assess the New York offer when it is made. Lastly, you must choose your best alternative option in case you do not reach an agreement with the New York company. Which of your realistic options would you really want to pursue if you do not get the job offer in New York?
More complex situations require the consideration of a broader range of factors and possibilities. For example, a community discovers that its water is being polluted by the discharges of a nearby factory. Community leaders first attempt to negotiate a cleanup plan with the company, but the business refuses to voluntarily agree on a plan of action that the community is satisfied with. In such a case, what are the community’s options for trying to resolve this situation?
• They could possibly sue the business based on stipulations of the Clean Water Act.
• They could contact the Environmental Protection Agency and see what sort of authority that agency has over such a situation.
• They could lobby the state legislature to develop and implement more stringent regulations on polluting factories.
• The community could wage a public education campaign and inform citizens of the problem. Such education could lead voters to support more environmentally minded candidates in the future who would support new laws to correct problems like this one.
In weighing these various alternatives to see which is “best,” the community members must consider a variety of factors.
• Which is most affordable and feasible?
• Which will have the most impact in the shortest amount of time?
• If they succeed in closing down the plant, how many people will lose their jobs?
These types of questions must be answered for each alternative before a BATNA can be determined in a complex environmental dispute such as this one.
BATNAs and the Other Side
At the same time you are determining your BATNA, you should also consider the alternatives available to the other side. Sometimes they may be overly optimistic about what their options are. The more you can learn about their options, the better prepared you will be for negotiation. You will be able to develop a more realistic view of what the outcomes may be and what offers are reasonable.
There are also a few things to keep in mind about revealing your BATNA to your adversary. Although Fisher and Ury do not advise secrecy in their discussions of BATNAs, according to McCarthy, “one should not reveal one’s BATNA unless it is better than the other side thinks it is.”5 But since you may not know what the other side thinks, you could reveal more than you should. If your BATNA turns out to be worse than the opponent thinks it is, then revealing it will weaken your stance.
BATNAs and the Role of Third Parties
Third parties can help disputants accurately assess their BATNAs through reality testing and costing. In reality testing, the third party helps clarify and ground each disputing party’s alternatives to agreement. S/he may do this by asking hard questions about the asserted BATNA: “How could you do that? What would the outcome be? What would the other side do? How do you know?” Or the third party may simply insert new information into the discussion…illustrating that one side’s assessment of its BATNA is likely incorrect. Costing is a more general approach to the same process…it is a systematic effort to determine the costs and benefits of all options. In so doing, parties will come to understand all their alternatives. If this is done together and the parties agree on the assessment, this provides a strong basis upon which to come up with a negotiated solution that is better than both sides’ alternatives. But if the sides cannot come to such an agreement, then negotiations will break down, and both parties will pursue their BATNA instead of negotiation.
By Brad Spangler
1 In 1992, Fisher and Ury published a 2nd Edition of Getting to Yes. The updated edition was edited by Bruce Patton and incorporates Fisher and Ury’s responses to criticisms of their original 1981 book.
2 Roger Fisher and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 104.
3 I William Zartman, Ripe for Resolution, (New York: Oxford, 1985/1989)
4 Roger Fisher and William Ury. Op.cit, 108.
5 William McCarthy, “The Role of Power and Principle in Getting to Yes,” in Negotiation Theory and Practice, Eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin. (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), 115-122.