What is a BATNA?

by Dr David Venter

The better a negotiator's BATNA, the greater that negotiator's power, given the attractive alternative that negotiator could resort to if an acceptable agreement is not reached.BATNA allows far greater flexibility and room for innovation than is the case with a predetermined bottom line.

When discussing a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) it is probably appropriate to start out by saying that it is not the so called bottom line that negotiators conceptualise to protect themselves against concluding agreements where they give too much or receive too little.

A bottom line denotes the worst possible outcome that could be accepted, and is therefore intended to act as a barrier beyond which the negotiation may not extend. It is a defense against the pressure and temptation that is often exerted on members of a party to agree to a deal that is self defeating. Although bottom lines undoubtedly do serve a purpose, they unfortunately create rigidity and inflexibility, inhibit creativity and innovation, and reduce the incentive to seek tailor-made solutions that reconcile differences.

By contrast, a BATNA does not concern what should be achieved, but what the course of action should be if an agreement is not reached within a certain time. As the standard against which an agreement is measured, it prevents a negotiator from accepting an agreement that is too unfavourable or not in its best interests, as it knows of a better option outside the negotiation.

By virtue of the fact that it concerns what the alternative to a negotiated agreement would be, it allows far greater flexibility and room for innovation than is the case with a predetermined bottom line. The better a negotiator's BATNA, the greater that negotiator's power, given the attractive alternative that negotiator could resort to if an acceptable agreement is not reached.

When developing a BATNA, a negotiator should:

  • Brainstorm a list of alternatives that could be considered if the negotiation failed to deliver a favourable agreement:
  • Select the most promising alternatives and develop them into practical and attainable alternatives: and
  • Identify the most beneficial alternative to be kept in reserve as a fall-back during the negotiation.

Although it would be ludicrous to enter a negotiation with a preconceived decision to not conclude the negotiation, having a viable BATNA is an essential insurance policy. A well thought through, clearly defined BATNA has the advantage that it makes it possible for the negotiator to break off the negotiation if it becomes clear that a beneficial outcome is not achievable, as the negotiator would then know what the consequences would be should the negotiation fail. This 'willingness' of negotiator to break off a negotiation should it become necessary, permits the negotiator to adopt a more firm and forceful stance when presenting ideas and interests as the basis for an agreement.

The question as to whether a BATNA should be disclosed to the other party/ parties depends on the strength/attractiveness of the BATNA. Should a negotiator have a strong BATNA, it may be beneficial to reveal it, as this would prevent the other party/ parties from acting as if a good alternative does not exist. Where a party, however, has a weak BATNA, non-disclosure may be the preferred approach, as this may, especially where the other party is showing signs of over-estimating its opponents BATNA, prove to be a bonus that should not be squandered through disclosure.

The more a negotiator knows about the alternatives available to the other party/ parties, the better that negotiator is able to prepare for a negotiation. Should a negotiator before a negotiation have access to information that the other party is over-estimating its BATNA such information could very effectively be used to lower its negotiation expectations.

Where both parties to a negotiation have a strong BATNA, negotiation would seem rather meaningless, as there would be very little incentive to come to an agreement. In such cases the parties should rather look elsewhere to pursue their business.

When a party to a negotiation fails to explore its BATNA, it finds itself in a very insecure situation, and is exposed to:

  • Strong inner pressure to reach an agreement, as it is unaware of what would happen if the negotiation fails:
  • Over-optimism about proposed agreements, often resulting in the associated costs not being fully appreciated:
  • The danger of becoming committed to reaching an agreement, as it is then unaware of alternatives outside the negotiation, and therefore would be inclined to be pessimistic about its prospects if the negotiation fails: and
  • The vagaries of the law of agreement, which holds that when persons agree to something this is entirely dependent on the attractiveness of the available alternatives.


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18 of 19 people found the following comment useful:

Good but it could be hard to apply - 2007 Jun 19
Commentator: Robert (United Kingdom - Milton Keynes)

"This was better than the explanation I got in a whole-day training course yesterday.
Im not sure how to apply it to everyday in the small negotiations I have with clients."

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