For our last car purchase we did an Internet sale, but his time we had a trade-in, and we thought to try a local dealer. We were going for an actual face-to-face deal with a person.
The discomfort most of us feel in car sales is that the dealers have such a superior reserve of information, and even with the Internet, it is hard to even out the playing field. At the dealership, a salesman did the usual cliché thing of turning us over to his manager to bargain on price. We batted some numbers around, and my wife felt she was getting pretty close to where she wanted to be.
We had arrived in our 1998 Toyota 4Runner, which we wanted to trade-in. We were the original owners, and we told the manager there was an oil leak, and some dents, and we generally let the dealer know it was a decidedly used vehicle! He came up with a number for the value of our trade-in. We got closer to a deal. Indeed, so close that the manager wanted to look at the 4Runner.
He was trying not to show it, but he looked like he had seen a ghost when he came back. The value on the trade-in would not budge any further upwards in our favor, but it was the end of the month, and he wanted the sale, and he did not pull back from his earlier offer. My wife tried one last push to get the price of the SUV down, but the manager would not go any lower, we were at impasse.
It goes like this in mediation. It takes time to go back and forth in dealing, and each party needs to feel their way into position based on what they are hearing from the other side. It is not as if the mediator can simply walk in, ask each side for their bottom line, divide by two and propose an acceptable solution. It takes time and effort to get to impasse, and often people feel pretty grim and exhausted when they do get there.
So why break out the champagne and celebrate impasse? I have often been back and forth between rooms and assured the parties that those folks in the other room are just as glum as you are! The reason to celebrate, or at least take a moment to feel good, is that this is the point at which a party can know that they have done well in negotiation: they are not losers, they have fought valiantly and done a hard day’s work.
Mediators have many tricks for breaking impasse, but in a good number of cases, when the parties’ positions are already close, this knowledge that they have each done a good job in negotiation can be just the extra piece needed to move to a deal, with nobody feeling that they were taken for a ride. If the gap is not huge, splitting the difference can actually be acceptable at this stage in negotiations.
As for my wife’s SUV, after doing the husband and wife caucus, we felt good and bought it. If the dealer laughed all the way to the bank, he was kind enough not to tell us.