Special Challenges of Multi-Party Negotiation, Part 3: October Surprises


Berton Lee Lamb and Susan K. Driver

A few years ago we were involved in a multi-party negotiation that had an interesting dynamic. Two of the parties in this negotiation were allies. Although they supported each other, one of those parties was more moderate. As the process unfolded it became clear that the more extreme party was really only interested in one issue. When that issue was settled the more extreme party stopped attending the negotiation sessions. The moderate party was not prepared for this change, and then struggled when it was perceived by the remaining parties to be extreme. Withdrawal of their ally was an “October Surprise.”

An October Surprise is not really about October; it is about surprises that occur late in a negotiation process. The term October Surprise comes to us from American political campaigns. What campaign managers mean by this term is that you can count on some kind of surprise late in the campaign. In the American election cycle that is October. The surprise might be an event, revelation, or opponent’s action that reflects positively or negatively on a candidate.

As was the case with the moderate and more extreme allies in our negotiation, the surprise withdrawal of one party was not planned for and changed the frame of the negotiation. The lesson for negotiators is to expect surprises and be ready for them. This is especially true in multi-party negotiation.  Three examples:

  1. Someone unexpectedly joins the conversation. This might be a political figure who decides to intervene, take charge, or seeks to influence the outcome. It could also be a party standing on the sidelines who suddenly decides to join the negotiation.
  2. A regulatory agency or court makes a decision in another case, setting a precedent that affects or counters the assumptions you and the other parties have made about the legal or political landscape.
  3. New facts: an expected study (or unexpected finding from a similar case) is presented to the parties, greatly changing the frame of the debate.

Negotiators should assume that such surprises will occur. Because these are surprises, negotiators often cannot predict what they will be or when they will happen. What can be done?

First, negotiators can anticipate that they will find themselves in this situation. A good negotiator can make a list of categories of surprises and think about how to react in each type of surprise event. By anticipating that surprises will arise in a negotiation, a party can be somewhat prepared to respond in the moment if one of these events occurs.

Second, during the assessment phase of negotiation planning, negotiators can evaluate the potential for different types of surprise events. A good negotiation assessment at the beginning of the process can help negotiators identify likely problems that may emerge down the road. For example, it is relatively easy to know when a party that should be present is not participating; they may seek to join. Or, in another scenario, a negotiator might be able to identify one of the parties that favors litigation and therefore expect that party to go to court at some point.

Third, negotiators can canvas. To canvas means to keep eyes and ears open and to hone listening skills. But it also means that negotiators should be aware of what is happening away from the negotiation table. A good negotiator remains vigilant for what has been published in the media, tracks similar negotiation processes and related litigation, and watches for emerging policy trends among regulatory agencies.

Anticipating that there will be an “October Surprise” near the end of a negotiation process will help prevent the negotiation from being disrupted and keep the parties focused on reaching a final settlement agreement.

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The Art of Successful Interactions at Work

LIVERMORE, Colorado: Negotiation Guidance Associates is pleased to announce its newest course, “The Art of Successful Interactions at Work: Leadership, Messaging, and Negotiation.”  The three-day course will be September 10-12, 2019 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Space is limited!

The goal of the course is to teach subject matter experts, managers, and directors how to effectively work with others in the office, communicate with the media, and improve productivity.

“We are excited to combine our most popular class, the Essentials of Negotiation, with some classic and new material, geared specifically to the challenges facing today’s mid-level managers,” said Dr. Berton Lamb, Principal at Negotiation Guidance Associates. “This class teaches how to be engaged and present in today’s 24-7 work environment when you are leading, bargaining, or speaking publicly for your organization.”

The course includes three whole-day sessions: Leader’s Edge: A Supervisor’s Guide to Success; Managing Media; and Essentials of Negotiation. Individual registrations are $975 until July 31, 2019. After July 31, 2019, individual registration is $1,050.

All registration must be in advance.

Register now!

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Does Collaboration Make a Difference?

A study published in 2015 examined three hydropower licensing cases that were characterized as having high, medium, and low collaboration. The author, Nicola Ulibarri, found that high collaboration resulted in “jointly developed and highly implementable operating regimes designed to improve numerous resources, while low collaboration resulted in operating requirements that ignored environmental concerns raised by stakeholders and lacked implementation provisions” (abstract).

Although Ms Ulibarri’s findings are based on a sample size of three cases, her findings are helpful. She concludes that a “full suite of collaborative dynamics appears necessary” for success (p. 17). This suite includes: trust, principled negotiation, and leadership. Moreover, success depends on “the extent and quality of collaboration.”

Source: Nicola Ulibarri (2015) “Tracing Process to Performance of Collaborative Governance: a comparative Case Study of Federal Hydropower Licensing.” Policy Studies Journal vol 00, No. 0 (Open access article). Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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Do Negotiators Adapt their Message to Communicate with Competing Parties?

In a recent article appearing in Policy Science  Political Scientists Mark McBeth, Donna Lybecker and James Stoutenborough examined the reasons why negotiators might switch between “personal message choice” and “public communication choice.” They describe public communication choice as a message that takes into account how the audience might best receive it.

These scientists found that 53% of negotiators did not switch their communication choice. In other words, more than half of those studied chose to stick with their preferred narrative.

One important factor suggested by the researchers to explain why negotiators did decide to switch away from their preferred narrative is the recognition that “there was a difference between themselves and the wider public.”  Age was another factor. Young people were also found to be more likely to switch. Switching narrative also sometimes appeared to be a strategy choice.

The scientists identified a tension that exists when parties decide whether or not to tailor their message to fit the culture of their audience. When making this decision negotiators must weigh the importance and ethics of discussing options in a language that is culturally sensitive to other groups. Changing the message away from personal preference might promote discussion but tailoring the message to an audience might be an attempt to “sell” a preferred option.

Source: McBeth, Mark K., Donna L. Lybecker, James W. Stoutenborough.  2016.  “Do stakeholders analyze their audience? The communication switch and stakeholder personal versus public communication choices,” Policy Sciences.  doi: 10.1007/s11077-016-9252-2

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Should Mediators “Evaluate?”

Here is a quote from a blurb that recently appeared in the International Chamber of Commerce webpage:

“..the benefit of mediation was seen as lying in the mediator’s ability to look beyond the polarised positions of the parties and find middle ground by analysing the parties’ positions and making each reflect on its own and the other’s position.”

Should a mediator analyze the parties’ positions and present the results of that evaluation? If so, when should the mediator do this? Continue reading

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The Role of a Mediator

A blog post by Katherine Graham about the role of a mediator recently came across my desk. Ms. Graham makes a good point that mediators should avoid the very natural tendency to pull the parties toward a solution.

She writes “…only when parties are willing to talk about themselves–to make themselves visible–is the [discussion] transformed into meaningful words.” (Page 2) With that observation in mind she tells us that the best mediators are humble and create a space in which the parties are invited to be kind, open, and empathetic.

You can find this article and others at www.mediate.com/articles

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“Core Competencies” is a Popular Article on ResearchGate

“Core Competencies for Natural Resource Negotiators” by Shana Gillette and Berton Lee Lamb reached the milestone of more than 50 downloads from researchgate.net. Click here to view and download the article.

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