Is there an idiom that means that you are in a very strong negotiation position in a negotiation? If there's no such idiom can you think of an idiom that means that you are in a stronger position than someone or something else? I am thinking of using the word in an essay on the U.S.-China trade war.

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    Do you want the idiom to imply that both sides know that "you are in a very strong negotiating position"? Or is it okay if only the stronger side knows that they have the advantage?
    – Jasper
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 19:27

11 Answers 11


I suggest "having the upper hand".

Oxford defines this as:

have (or gain) the upper hand (phrase) Have or gain advantage or control over someone or something.

and provides this example sentence:

Just when Claudius thinks he controls Hamlet, it is really Hamlet who has the upper hand over Claudius.

  • This is the idiom that I would suggest for use in an essay, as it is the most formal suggestion so far. Commented May 19, 2019 at 21:28
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    To me this only implies some advantage, not "very strong".
    – Keith
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 2:47
  • A (possibly UK-centric) alternative would be to have the whip hand.
    – Spratty
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 13:56
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    @keith It can be strengthened, e.g. clearly having the upper hand.
    – Tashus
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 14:37

"To hold all the aces" means having overwhelming advantage, the metaphor coming from bridge or pretty much any card game.

Re a previous contribution: "an ace up one's sleeve" means more of having a secret weapon rather then being in an advantageous situation.

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    I've never really heard "hold all the aces", rather it's usually "hold all the cards". ...but the meaning is still clear, just thought to comment. (AmEn)
    – BruceWayne
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 2:29
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    @BruceWayne: I agree, the usual phrase is "hold all the cards" (Brit). And this is by far the closest fit to the OP's question.
    – TonyK
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 23:51
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    "Hold all the cards" has way more cachet than "hold all the aces". books.google.com/ngrams/… Would recommend editing this.
    – Daniel B
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 7:21

To "have {someone} over a barrel"

is such an idiom.

You might also want to look at idioms for the weaker side's negotiating position. These often involve two bad choices. For example,

"between a rock and a hard place"

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    I would note that "have {someone} over a barrel" has sexual/suggestive connotations, and is fairly informal. I wouldn't use this in an essay. Commented May 19, 2019 at 21:27
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    @StevenLowes No modern American English speaker would think so. You’d have to be a literary history major or have some fairly non-standard notions about sex to think so. It’s a common idiom, and a growing one.
    – CodeGnome
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 0:43
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    @CodeGnome, TIL that "Having someone over a barrel" isn't a sexual reference in AmEn. Out of interest, what does it refer to to you? I think a degree or non-standard notions being required might be a bit far, the implication seems quite clear to me. Commented May 20, 2019 at 8:27
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    As a native English (American) speaker, I wouldn't flinch at someone using this phrase in a meeting or in writing, but I would probably think "Really? You could have used a better term..." It is clearly sexual in nature but the phrase is only ever used to refer to a negotiating position so it's not immediately offensive.
    – Brian R
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 15:16
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    Dictionary terms: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/barrel and google.com/search?q=define%3A%22over+a+barrel%22. Less reliable sources: phrases.org.uk/meanings/over-a-barrel.html, wordorigins.org/index.php/more/439. If you consider drowning victims or flogging to be innately sexual that's entirely your business, but that's still not what the phrase has come to mean in modern usage. While informal, it is certainly not considered crude.
    – CodeGnome
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 15:30

Another possible choice is "in the driver's seat", meaning that the person so described is able to direct the outcome.

Collins says:

in the driver's seat (phrase)
If you say that someone is in the driver's seat, you mean that they are in control in a situation.
Now he knows he's in the driver's seat and can wait for a better deal.

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    This is also my preference for that idiomatic use as "to be/being in the driver's seat" suggests that everyone else on board is a passenger merely along for the drive (reinforcing their impotence).
    – civitas
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 2:06
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    Like this because it implies being in control, but not necessarily so much so that the deal is already won.
    – Keith
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 2:51
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    This only refers to being in control, which is at best an indirect way to indicate someone (likely) has an advantageous negotiating position. Someone with a stronger position might be more likely to try to exert control, but they may also choose not to for one of a few reasons (from not realising their advantage to not wanting to negotiate to waiting for the right moment).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 9:21

A colorful phrase is in the catbird seat, defined as "in a superior or advantageous position".

A vulgar alternative is mentioned in this question.

  • +1 for the alternative.
    – DRF
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 11:26
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    I've never heard or read "catbird seat" anywhere in my life.
    – Noah
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 18:59

If you want to use a rather informal idiom that has had some recent usage, you could use

I have the high ground

Referring to the military advantage you get from an elevated position, from having the high ground. This has recently been used in a scene from Star wars Episode III, in which Obi Wan asks Anakin Skywalker to give up, as he has a superior fighting position.

Source: Urban dictionary

google ngram viewer suggests, that this has been around for a while, at least in writing (which is hardly surprising, as user rubenvb suggested - thanks for that)

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    "recent"... having the high ground has been advantageous for quite a while (think about e.g. archers on a hill).
    – rubenvb
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 8:48
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    @rubenvb agreed.. I have altered my answer to take that into account.
    – glissi
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 9:02
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    This has nothing to do with Star Wars - 'High Ground' has been an obvious military advantage since before we could write.
    – MikeB
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 10:22
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    @Mike Brockington I was not referring to the military concept of 'High Ground' (for which your comment is certainly true), but rather to the direct Star Wars quote, which seems to be rather common.
    – glissi
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 11:35
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    @glissi The use in Star Wars was directly referencing the existing idiom, and symbolic of Obi-wan having the moral high-ground. "The High Ground" was even the title of a Season 3 episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in 1990, so was common and widely known long before "Revenge of the Sith" Commented May 21, 2019 at 16:00

If you are able to determine who is selling product to whom, and who is most capable of setting the price at which goods are traded, then you can refer to it as either a buyer's market or a seller's market.

This refers to who has the upper hand in negotiations.

In a seller's market, this means that you (the seller) are only one of few vendors of a given product, and the customers' demands are high enough that you know you'll always sell your good, and therefore are able to charge whatever you want. Even if some customers are unwilling to pay your price, there will be enough customers/demand that you will sell your products.

If I charge $1000 per glass of water, and I put my stand in the Sahara desert, then I do so because I know that water is a seller's market in the otherwise dry desert. Customers will have to buy from me and they have no position to refuse my price if they need the water.

In a buyer's market, there are a lot of vendors of the same product, and there is not much demand for the product. If a customer does not buy your product, they will go to another vendor, leaving you with unsold products. This means that the buyer can dictate what they will buy and what they won't buy, and sellers are racing each other in order to steal each other's business.
If a buyer is more inclined to buy from an airconditioned shop, that means that in a buyer's market, the sellers are strongly incentivized to aircondition their shops just to ensure that they can get the customers they need.

Think of it as two market vendors who keep having to lower their prices just to make sure that the customers come to them instead of their competitor.



While not necessarily an idiom, “having/holding leverage” is a good description of negotiations where one side has more power or advantage than another.

  • There is an interpretation that this is a capability in the negotiating process "your leverage", however the other side(s) may have their own forms of leverage as well - I may have a positional advantage/leverage/influence, some other an economic advantage/leverage/influence.
    – civitas
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 2:21

heheh, Australian chiming in.

We* have an expression: To have him by the short and curlies.

Collins states: to have someone completely in one's power.

I'll leave it to you to work out what 'short & curlies' are, but as a hint, it refers to hair.

*Though it's origin is probably from the UK


If you are in a stronger position in a negotiation, consider the idiom:

have an ace up your sleeve

For example:

I'm well prepared for the negotiations. I've got an ace up my sleeve.

Source: Learn English Today negotiation idioms

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    To guarantee that the opponent doesn't also have an ace (or two) up his sleeve, you need @SamG's answer of holding all of the aces.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 20:44
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    It's a great answer to a different question (one looking for a hidden advantage rather than overwhelming advantage)
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 21:27

Quite simply, to "have the advantage", as in

They have the advantage in the negotiations

This is distinct from "have an advantage." Having an advantage means you have some sort of asset or quality which will help you. Having the advantage means you are already in control of the situation.

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