I was asked at a recent mediation what my philosophy was on knowing the parties’ reservation price (walk-away number) or bottom line. Until I was asked, I had never thought about the question but answered the attorney’s question with my honest — but unconsidered — philosophy.
Since that mediation, I have thought a lot about the question and have a more developed answer. Like most questions in my professional life the answer begins with: “It depends.” Consider that in every mediation, one of my roles is to facilitate the iterative bargaining positions of the parties, that is the sequential offers and demands. I am often asked what is the other side’s bottom line. Of course, this is not something I ever disclose (on the rare occasions when I know it) until authorized but I do help the parties interpret the “signals.”
On the other hand, I am also often asked how I would respond to the latest offer/demand from the other side. My answer is that “it depends.” It depends on that party’s reservation price. No one can afford to make large moves when they have little room left. Without knowing that number, it is not possible to give concrete advice. When I do not know the bottom line, my answer is always: “if your walk-away is A, your counter should be between B and C; but if your walk-away is X, then the counter should be between Y and Z.”
My message to the parties is always the same. 1) Come into the mediation with a plan that includes your reservation price, your reasons for that price, and a consistent strategy for getting there; 2) Be prepared to adjust that price based upon new information or a better understanding of the risks of impasse but do not let emotions or exhaustion drive a change; and 3) send consistent messages through your iterative moves.
If you follow this advice, your mediator does not need to know your bottom line and there are probably good reasons not to share it. If you don’t know your reservation price, it is nearly impossible to send consistent messages and inconsistent messages are a fast track to impasse.