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What to do with a tuna sandwich

Keith Stacey
Negotiation Tuna Sandwich

A friend emerged from a bakery carrying a small packet of mixed sandwiches - you know, the sort they give you in hospital recovery rooms. There are variations on the theme, but there is usually one ham and pickle, one cheese and lettuce, one tomato, one curried egg and of course… a tuna sandwich, which must be everybody's’ least favourite.  

The tuna sandwich is a metaphor for a dilemma faced by many negotiators when they receive a proposal. Some elements they like, others they can live with, but then there is sticking point; an unacceptable term (the tuna sandwich).   

So, what do you do with that tuna sandwich? 

As a negotiator, you need to decide whether it is a deal breaker – enough to force you to reject the entire package. Meaning no ham, cheese, tomato et cetera. This would be the equivalent of a ‘must get’ or ‘non-negotiable’ item. If so then you should reveal this as early as possible, so that the other party doesn’t spend time and effort constructing a tuna sandwich for you. In other words, alert the kitchen to an allergy and request an extra ham sandwich to substitute for the loss of the tuna.  

Key lesson: Non-negotiable elements should not emerge late in the negotiation.  

If, on balance, the package provides all of your ‘musts gets’ (the no-tuna elements) then you may accept the package as is, and not eat the tuna sandwich or if the sandwich is a requirement of the other party, hold your nose and take large bites.  

There are of course more creative solutions than the binary accept and reject. If the tuna was low value to you, but high cost for the other party to provide, you could trade it back for more of ham or cheese or even a muffin. You could accept the tuna sandwich and trade it to someone who prefers the tuna.  

Key lesson: Trade on value to the other party not cost to you. 

I am sure that there are other solutions to this negotiating dilemma and we would love you to share them. 

PS: I love tuna, but not in a sandwich.  

Keith Stacey
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