Rummage around in the acronym bran-tub of negotiation theory and you might well pull out ZOPA: the Zone of Possible Agreement. See a visualisation of that idea here.

The idea of ZOPA is simple. Alex wants to buy a car. Blex has one to sell:

  • Alex is ready to pay £10,000 but DEFINITELY no more than £18,000
  • Blex hopes to get £25,000 but will, if REALLY pressed, settle for £16,000.

The Zone of Possible Agreement in this case is the range of prices where their respective ambitions overlap: from £16,000 to £18,000.

They start to sense that a final deal will be somewhere in this range. Alex will be pleased if the price is as close to £16,000 as possible, but can (just) live with up to £18,000. Blex can (just) live with £16,000 but will be much happier to get £18,000.

The typical negotiation theorist presents any deal done in the ZOPA as a positive ‘Win-Win’. Both sides are happy enough: that’s why they struck the deal at whatever the final price was within that zone.

In my masterclass roleplays with risk-averse public sector people, I often find that they think that the job is done once they close in on a deal within the ZOPA:

“I was given both a range of options and a clear bottom-line, and I can deliver a result my bosses can accept! I definitely can’t be told off for that!”

True. But that’s not the discipline.

Top negotiators identify the ZOPA then use all their guile and persuasiveness to get the best possible result for themselves within that ZOPA.

How, then, to push your way towards the end of the ZOPA that best suits you?

This is where key listening skills come in. You try to identify and exploit hints or ambiguities in what the other side is saying.

Suppose that in this car case Alex has had an opening offer of £12,000 briskly declined. Alex decides to make Blex a better proposal, but does it in a wordy way:

“I think I have some flexibility here. OK, I’m ready to offer £14,000 – or thereabouts.”

Blex is a canny negotiator and spots subtle ambiguities in Alex’s words:

“I may have some flexibility here

OK , I’m ready to offer £14,000 – or thereabouts.

Blex realises that Alex is (maybe unconsciously, maybe deliberately?) signalling that s/he can be squeezed to pay a good notch more than £14,000.

Blex keeps pressing the case that (say) £20,000 is a very good price, with a view to dropping to £18,000 ‘as a final offer’ if that’s what it takes to finish the deal. Alex is worn down and finally concedes a price of £17,600.

Blex could have pressed for even more, but decided that it was a good reputational move to leave Alex thinking that Blex is fair and flexible.

‘Win-win’ for both? Yes.

But by using sharp technique to listen with the utmost care to what Alex says (and to what Alex does not say) and by holding out before making key concessions, Blex gets much the better of the process. Alex does not press hard enough.


Great negotiators realise that getting to ‘Win – Win’ is the easy bit. The real skill lies in getting the maximum for one’s own side within that.

PS  See also Brexit passim.