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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

Timing is Everything!

As a mediator I am often stuck between two parties on very simple things, like choosing a time and place for a meeting. Let’s leave the venue aside – timing can be just as important.

First, let me say: if you are struggling with parties who seem reluctant to meet at the time proposed by the other side, or just reluctant to meet – full stop – this represents an opportunity for any mediator. In my book ANY agreement, no matter how small, is valuable as it gets the parties used to making agreements with the other side.

There are a few additional things to think about with meeting timings. These apply to negotiations as well as mediations…..

First or last is best

When applying for a job you should strive to be the first candidate in any sequence of interviews. Same thing with sales pitches. While Employers tend to choose the best candidate, your 09:00 am job interview with them will pop into their mind more easily – and they will misattribute this ease with a desire to hire you (see Whittlesea, 1993).

The same is true of negotiations or mediations. If there is a series of difficult meetings for either of the parties, it’s always best to be meeting earlier in the day.

If an early time isn’t possible, choose a later time (perhaps 4:00 to 5:00pm). If you can’t be the first interview, better to be the last interview and maybe trigger a ‘recency’ effect in the minds of decision-makers. [See Carl Icahn below.]

Under Pressure

Time is often a fundamental element of any meeting. In a purchasing negotiation, knowing the end of a monthly or quarterly sales cycle could be useful in negotiating the best price.

Time is often used strategically to apply pressure to accept an offer (“This offer is only good until noon tomorrow”). And if that is the backdrop of the meeting, then there needs to be sufficient time to deal with that pressure.

The other side of the coin is that one party may be desperate for a deal but the counter-party’s position is getting stronger and stronger as time marches on.

Give yourself enough time

Suggest an early time to meet, perhaps 8:00 to 10:00am – then you’ll have enough time to negotiate or mediate before one or more of the parties has to leave: (1) to pick up the kids (2) to get their plane (3) to catch the last bus to Clapham Common (4) or some other excuse.

By meeting early in the day you can trigger a primacy effect: information early in a sequence will become entrenched in long-term memory (Murdock, 1962). Also, if positive progress can be made early in the meeting, this usually bodes well for the rest of the day.

But also think about how the parties might be feeling about starting at 8:00am. If someone has just got off a plane after a 12-hour flight they might be understandably grumpy, or maybe fragile. Carl Icahn (the notorious American financier) apparently doesn’t start any of his negotiations until the late afternoon – after he’s had his regular post-lunch nap, and is well rested. By late afternoon Icahn’s opponents however are already burned-out from a tough day negotiating with other folk, and are more likely to fold on important issues. Or, at least that’s what I imagine is behind the tactic. Maybe Icahn just isn’t a “morning person”.

How long should you plan for?

If you can extract an increased investment of time by the parties then they will be more invested in finalising an agreement (Malhotra & Bazerman, 2008). Plus, if the parties know they only have an hour’s meeting and they get bogged down discussing the first of many points for the first 45 minutes they may conclude that talking / negotiating / mediating is a “waste of their time”. However, there is also a school of thought that says that any task will be expanded to fill the time available. If the parties think they have all the time in the world, they will take their own sweet time reaching an agreement.

Another reason to have a longer meeting is the tendency of negotiating parties to try to set ‘anchors’ in negotiation. The ‘anchoring’ bias is the common tendency we have to give disproportionate weight to the first number we hear in a discussion and then inadequately adjust from that starting point, or the ‘anchor’ (Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman). We even fixate on anchors when we know they are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. And research has also shown that anchors made early on in a negotiation are less effective than one made later on (Marwan Sinaceur). So, if people want to try to anchor, they need to give sufficient time for the anchor to be embedded.

A longer meeting time also gives the parties, and any mediator, the chance to have some “time out” sessions where the parties can caucus privately to reconsider their position. These powerful moments of private re-evaluation are often the key to getting disputes resolved and negotiations finalised - especially in mediation.

A lengthy time for a difficult meeting is always preferable in my view. The more time that parties have: to better understand the things preventing agreement, to read the body-language, to humanise, and talk to (and crucially) to TRUST the other side - is usually a good thing. If you have enough time to share some food, even better.

All in all, I’d rather not be rushing negotiations or getting disputes resolved in a hurry. This usually just stores up more trouble for later on.

Murdock Jr, B. B. (1962). The serial position effect of free recall. Journal of experimental

psychology, 64(5), 482.

Malhotra, D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2008). Psychological influence in negotiation: An

introduction long overdue. Journal of Management, 34(3), 509-531.

Whittlesea, B. W. (1993). Illusions of familiarity. Journal of Experimental Psychology:

Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19(6), 1235.

Marwan Sinaceur of INSEAD and his co-authors in a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

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