Catalonia is trying a classic negotiation tactic to keep Spain from killing its independence bid

Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont decided today not to clarify whether the region declared independence or not, with just two hours to spare before the deadline imposed by Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy. What is he thinking?

Spain’s central government gave Puigdemont until 10am local time today to make his intentions clear, following a lengthy, confusing speech last week in which he pledged to “suspend the effect of the independence declaration” following the region’s controversial Oct. 1 referendum on breaking away from Spain. The country’s central government considered the vote illegal, deployed troops to drag voters out of polling stations, and refuses to rule out invoking a clause in the Spanish constitution giving it the power to impose direct rule over Catalonia, currently an autonomous region of Spain.

This puts Puigdemont in a tough spot. The Catalan leader’s response, proposing open-ended talks to be held in the next two months, suggests he is employing a negotiation tactic taught by business school professors as a way to get what you want.

In 2007, Margaret Neale of Stanford Business School, who directs two executive education programs in negotiation, wrote about how successful negotiators go into talks without “fixing the pie.” If there is the perception that the pie is fixed—that is, that there are only a small set of potential outcomes from a negotiation—both parties often don’t get what they want. In Catalonia’s case, this means that placing a hard line on what one side wants, like a declaration of unilateral independence by regional officials, would lead to the other side, Spain’s central government, shutting talks down and taking the aggressive, destabilizing step of imposing direct rule.

But by suggesting that there is more wiggle room, and therefore more options to discuss, there is a greater likelihood that talks will progress and both sides will end up satisfied. At least, according to theory. Neale found that when she repeatedly performed this exercise in her classes, 20% to 35% of the students missed out on opportunities to negotiate in the interest of both sides because they assumed the pie was fixed.

Making sure the pie isn’t fixed is a classic negotiation tactic, but this is not to say that it always works. The Greek government looked for some leverage by calling calling a referendum in 2015 on the conditions imposed by creditors as part of its bailout, but ended up accepting nearly all of the measures anyway after a period of one-sided haggling. And the UK suggests that its trade arrangements with the EU can be unique and bespoke after it quits the bloc, but reports suggest that London is preparing for a “no deal” Brexit as the rest of the EU looks unwilling to bend its rules.

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