The Special Challenges of Multi-Party Negotiations, Part 1


Susan K. Driver

The structure of every negotiation process is multidimensional. At any given time, negotiations are occurring simultaneously along three distinct dimensions:  (1) the horizontal dimension across the table with the other side; (2) the internal dimension within each negotiation team or party to the negotiation; and (3) the ratification dimension between each team or party and the organizational hierarchy they report to.

Multi-party or “multi-lateral” negotiations are more challenging than two-party or “bi-lateral” negotiations because each time a new stakeholder is added there are exponentially more negotiation dimensions to manage.  However, if you keep in mind the similar underlying structure of any negotiation process, you can ultimately reach successful outcomes no matter how many stakeholders are involved.

Let’s look at this underlying structure in the context of a simple bilateral negotiation. Team A is negotiating across the table with Team B.  The horizontal dimension consists of the face to face interactions across the negotiation table between Team A and Team B.  These discussions may take place in a formal, highly structured and public environment with progress frequently reported to the media.  This is what most people think about when they hear about a negotiation process.

The internal dimension is the negotiations that are on-going within each negotiating team.  In the above example, when Team A looks across the table at Team B, Team A sees an opponent with a unified negotiating position.  However, this perspective is seldom completely accurate, because there are often differences among team members in attitudes and opinions about how they should approach the negotiations.  The on-going work to resolve differences among team members is the internal dimension of the negotiations.

The ratification dimension is the negotiations that are on-going between the negotiating team and  that team’s organizational hierarchy, and among various departments of the organizational hierarchy.  In the above example, the organizational hierarchy initially sends Team A to the negotiating table with a clear negotiation strategy based on a series of assumptions.  During the course of negotiations along the horizontal dimension, Team A learns these assumptions are not accurate and their negotiation position needs to be modified.  Team A returns to its organizational hierarchy to explain why these assumptions have proved erroneous and to develop a new negotiation strategy grounded in more accurate assumptions.  This on-going negotiations work along the ratification dimension  can be conducted by team members or the team chair.  Often the team chair will take on the job of defining the limits of the horizontal negotiations and assuring ratification by the organizational hierarchy of any settlement agreement that is reached.

Each time you add a new stakeholder to the negotiations process you exponentially increase the complexity of the negotiations.  In the above example, adding Team C would change the structure of the negotiations occurring along the horizontal dimension from a two-party structure of Team A – Team B to a three-party structure of Team A – Team B, Team A – Team C, Team B – Team C.  It is also likely that adding Team C will increase the time needed to complete the negotiations because Team C will also be simultaneously negotiating along the internal and ratification dimensions.

Masters of negotiations reach successful outcomes in negotiation processes involving multiple parties because they understand the underlying structure of the negotiations and work hard to manage the negotiations occurring simultaneously along the horizontal, internal and ratification dimensions.

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