40+ Negotiation Idioms
You may have noticed that we use a ton of idioms in English.
They’re all around you, and your English won’t sound natural unless you use them.
Here are 40+ idioms for talking about negotiations. How many do you know?
If you’re interested in learning more idioms, check out the idioms and phrasal verb section of the site.
At stake refers to what is to be won or lost in a negotiation, game, competition, election, etc.
“With so much at stake, there’s no way it will be a quick negotiation. Both sides will want to make sure they get a fair deal.”
“It’s not just a lot of money that is at stake, it’s also our reputation. We need to make sure we’re offering our clients a fair price.”
to back down
To back down means to to stop asking for something, or to stop saying that you will do something, because a lot of people oppose you. (MacMillan Dictionary)
“The union had threatened to strike, but has since backed down.”
“Initially, I demanded an apology, but I backed down once I had some time to cool off and think.”
the ball is in one’s court
If the ball is in someone’s court, it means that it is time for someone to deal with a problem or make a decision, because other people have already done as much as they can. (Cambridge Dictionary)
“We put together the best possible proposal we could. The ball is in the client’s court now.”
“I think I’ve given you all the information you need to make a decision. The ball is in your court.”
below the belt
If a comment is below the belt, it is very insulting and unfair. (Cambridge Dictionary) We also can say that an unfair comment is a low blow.
“Making derogatory comments about Mark’s family was below the belt and unprofessional.”
“The attack ads during this election year have been below the belt. It makes me not want to vote for either candidate.”
to bend over backwards
To bend over backwards means to do everything possible to please someone.
“Our prices are a little higher than the competition’s, but we bend over backwards to provide the best possible customer service.”
“The city has bent over backwards to attract new businesses to the area.”
to call the shots
The person who calls the shots is the person who makes the decisions.
“I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not who calls the shots. I’ll need approval from my manager.”
“George W. Bush was the president of the United States, but many people felt that his vice president, Dick Cheney, was the one who called the shots.”
to change someone’s mind
To change someone’s mind means to change how someone feels about something.
“You may get your boss to change her mind if you pull her aside and calmly explain your position to her. If you challenge her publicly, she’ll be less likely to budge on the issue.”
“Our professor doesn’t accept late assignments, and there’s no way we’ll ever change his mind about his policy.”
Common ground means an area of shared interests or opinions held by two or more people or groups. (Cambridge Dictionary)
“The two major political parties in the United States are increasingly polarized. They have very little common ground.”
“What common ground do Millennials and baby boomers share?”
to cut a deal
To cut a deal means to make a business deal or another kind of mutually beneficial arrangement.
“To fund new stadiums, professional sports franchises will often try to cut a deal with their city.”
“Certain American government agencies were nonoperational during the government shutdown because Republicans and Democrats refused to cut a deal on the budget.”
Cut-throat (or cutthroat) means ruthless. We often use this expression before a noun (cut-throat tactics, for example).
“The cut-throat competition in the industry is the driving force behind lower costs.”
“Powerful businesses often hire teams of cutthroat attorneys to represent them.”
to draw the line
To draw the line means to put a limit on what you will do or allow to happen, especially because you feel something is wrong. (Cambridge Dictionary)
“We can’t just say yes to all our customers’ requests no matter how absurd they are. We need to draw the line somewhere.”
“I understand you want to give your teenagers the freedom to lead their own lives, but where do you draw the line?”
to drive a hard bargain
To drive a hard bargain means to fiercely negotiate and demand what you want.
“If you drive a hard bargain, you may be able to get free shipping on your order.”
“Car dealerships should offer everyone fair prices, not just customers who know how to drive a hard bargain.”
to fall through
If something falls through, it means it ultimately failed to happen.
“We were going to trade in our car to the dealership, but it felt through. The financing options weren’t what we expected.”
“Negotiations went poorly, and the trade deal fell through.”
to get down to business
To get down to business means to start discussing the topic at hand or to start working on something that needs to be done.
“In Brazil, there is a lot of small talk at meetings before people really get down to business. In the United States, this is less common.”
“I only have about 15 minutes before my next conference call, so let’s get right down to business.”
give and take
Give and take refers to the process of making concessions and being willing to compromise with others in a negotiation.
“Good politicians understand that their jobs involve a great deal of give and take.”
“Having an adult child living in your home can be difficult. You can’t be a strict authoritarian; you have to be comfortable with some give and take.”
to give ground
To give ground means to make concessions to the other negotiating party.
“It’s not much of a negotiation if you’re not willing to give any ground.”
“There are a few hot-button political issues that neither side is willing to give ground on.”
to give in
To give in means to yield something to someone after insistence or pressure.
“My kids begged to stay up late, but my wife and I refused to give in.”
“Just because a decision is unpopular with employees doesn’t mean you have to give in. Sometimes a little conflict is okay.”
to go back on
To go back on something means to break a promise.
“I’d feel more comfortable if we had the agreement in writing. It’s too easy to go back on a verbal agreement.”
“In all our years doing business together, I’ve never known you to go back on your word.”
to go over like a lead balloon
If something goes over like a lead balloon, it means it is extremely unpopular.
“Raising taxes will go over like a lead balloon with the taxpayers.”
“Your idea to cut the marketing budget will go over like a lead balloon. If anything, we need to increase the budget.”
to have an ace up one’s sleeve
To have an ace up one’s sleeve means to have an important and secret advantage in a negotiation, competition, etc.
“We have an ace up our sleeve. Once our new product comes out, it will help us destroy the competition.”
“Our intramural soccer team has an ace up its sleeve. We just convinced a former professional player to play on our team.”
to iron something out
To iron out something (or to iron something out) means to to put something into a finished state by solving problems, removing differences, or taking care of details. (Cambridge Dictionary)
“The deal is going to go through. We just have to iron out the details and put the contract together.”
“My wife and I both want to go to Southern California on vacation, but we don’t know the details yet. We’re going to have to iron it out.”
to lay one’s cards on the table
To lay one’s cards on the table means to be completely honest about one’s motivations and intentions.
“It was refreshing to meet someone who laid his cards on the table and stated exactly what he was looking for in a partner.”
“Let me lay my cards on the table. I’m looking for another job because I feel I’m underpaid.”
to lock horns
To lock horns means to argue about something.
“As a youth football coach, I was constantly locking horns with parents about their children’s playing time.”
“I like TV personalities who aren’t afraid to lock horns with their guests.”
to make up one’s mind
To make up one’s mind means to make a decision.
“Three landscapers submitted proposals, but we haven’t made up our mind which company we’re going to go with.”
“Have you made up your mind about what you’re doing for the holidays?”
to meet someone half-way
To meet someone halfway means to compromise and make concessions to the other negotiating party.
“You can’t take vacation for the whole week because we have important clients visiting. How about we meet halfway and you take Thursday and Friday off instead?”
“You shouldn’t offer someone their full asking price on a used car. Make an offer lower than what you’re comfortable paying and see if the seller will meet you halfway.”
on the fence
On the fence means undecided about something.
“My wife wants to get a third cat, but I’m still on the fence about it. Pets can be so much work.”
“If you’re on the fence about accepting the new job, it must not be a perfect fit for you.”
out of the question
If something is out of the question, it means that there is no way it is going to happen.
“I’m fine with working some nights and weekends, but working every Sunday is out of the question.”
“We may be able to afford to take a road trip this summer, but flying internationally is out of the question. It’s simply not in our budget.”
over my dead body
Over my dead body is an expression used to communicate that a person will do anything to prevent something from happening.
“We’re not buying this car. We simply can’t afford it. Over my dead body.”
“Over my dead body will we sell this house. This is my home and I’m not leaving.”
to pick holes
To pick holes in something means to point out the flaws in a plan, agreement, idea, etc.
“Instead of picking holes in the agreement, maybe you could make some helpful suggestions.”
“These are legitimate concerns I have about our city’s government. I’m not picking holes for the sake of picking holes.”
to play hardball
If someone plays hardball, they will do anything that is necessary to achieve or get what they want, even if this involves being harsh or unfair. (Collins Dictionary)
“I have a stubborn boss who likes to play hardball.”
“Sometimes you have to play hardball with people. Being nice all the time doesn’t always work.”
to play one’s cards right
To play one’s cards right means to make intelligent decisions in order to gain an advantage.
“If you play your cards right, you may be able to get a promotion next year.”
“I think you could get a more competitive quote if you play your cards right.”
to put one’s foot down
To put one’s foot down means to refuse to change one’s stance on something.
“You can smoke on the porch, but there’s no way you can smoke in my house. I’m putting my foot down.”
“Mike put his foot down about marriage. He’s against it and nothing will change his mind.”
to put words in someone’s mouth
To put words in someone’s mouth means to to say that someone means one thing when the person really meant something else. (Cambridge Dictionary)
“I never said I had a problem with your friends. Don’t put words in my mouth!”
“Reporters have a way of putting words in people’s mouths. I wouldn’t believe everything you read.”
to reach a stalemate
To reach a stalemate means to reach a point in which both sides disagree and are not willing to compromise in order to reach an agreement.
“Peace negotiations have reached a stalemate. I don’t think we’re going to get a deal done.”
“Management and the union have reached a stalemate about wages. Both sides refuse to budge.”
to see eye to eye
To see eye to eye means to agree on something.
“We’ve never seen eye to eye on politics, which is strange since we have similar opinions on everything else.”
“On what issues do Catholics and Protestants see eye to eye?”
the short end of the stick
If someone gets the short end of the stick, they receive unfair treatment or get an unfair deal.
“If you have bad credit, you’re going to get the short of the stick when you ask for a loan.”
“Many people claim that we got the short end of the stick on our international trade agreements.”
to sleep on it
To sleep on it means to wait until the next day to make a decision.
“You don’t have to accept or decline the job offer right this minute. Why don’t you sleep on it and call the recruiter tomorrow?”
“I wish I had slept on it before writing the email. My tone was too aggressive because I was still angry.”
to stand one’s ground
To stand one’s ground means to to refuse to change your opinion or give in to an argument. (Cambridge Dictionary)
“If you don’t stand your ground this time, your employees are going to take advantage of you in the future.”
“I wish the author had stood his ground about keeping the movie script similar to the book. The Hollywood version of the story isn’t nearly as good.”
to stick to one’s guns
To stick to one’s guns means to not change one’s opinion or stance even in the face of criticism.
“My parents want me to change my major to something more practical, but I’m sticking to my guns.”
“Our manager is sticking to her guns on the new vacation policy.”
to strong-arm someone
To strong-arm someone means to use force or threats to get one’s way. We can also use strong-arm as an adjective (strong-arm tactics, for example).
“You won’t be a very good attorney if you allow people to strong arm you all the time.”
“Powerful nations have always used strong-arm tactics on smaller, less powerful countries.”
to take sides
To take sides means to to agree with or support one person, group, or cause and not another. (Merriam-Webster) We can also say to take someone’s side.
“When your children are arguing, you should listen before you take sides.”
“Surprisingly, most of the assistant coaches took the players’ side instead of the head coach’s.”
to talk someone into something
To talk someone into something means to convince someone to do something.
“I’m not into superhero movies. I don’t think anyone can talk me into seeing any of the Marvel films.”
“If you call your cable company and tell them you’d like to cancel your service, someone will probably get on the line and try to talk you into keeping your service. You may even get offered a significant discount.”
to talk someone out of something
To talk someone out of something means to convince someone not to do something.
“Many college graduates are grateful their parents talked them out of taking out big loans to pay for their education.”
“I’m so glad you talked me out of quitting last November. My big promotion came two months later!”
until someone is blue in the face
If someone does something (usually talking or arguing) until they are blue in the face, it means they do it for such a long time that they are exhausted.
“We argued until we were blue in the face, but we didn’t resolve anything.”
“You can try to convince me until you are blue in the face, but I’m not going to lend you the money.”
the upper hand
If someone has the upper hand, they have the advantage in a negotiation, competition, etc.
“You need this job more than they need your services. Management has the upper hand.”
“Do you think the opposition has the upper hand? Will they be able to force the president to resign?”
For more idiomatic expressions, see these articles on idioms and phrasal verbs.