As I discussed in an earlier article, the structure of every negotiation is multi-dimensional. 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 negotiations; and (3) the ratification dimension between each team or party and the organizational hierarchy they report to. In this article, I focus on the horizontal dimension across the table and illustrate how quickly a simple negotiation process can become more complicated as additional stakeholders are added.
Each day we make decisions and resolve conflicts in our families, schools, businesses or at work. These informal discussions occur without us consciously thinking about them as a negotiation process–who takes the dog for a walk, when to schedule the parent-teacher conference, or where to take an out of town colleague for dinner next week. Informal negotiations between two people (the horizontal dimension) seldom take place at a formal negotiating table. More often informal conversations occur in informal settings like the water cooler at work or at the kitchen stove while making dinner. Differences of opinion are often easily resolved because there is mutual respect, a shared goal and a willingness to accommodate each other’s needs.
Yet each of these simple negotiations can quickly become more complicated when a third person joins in. What started out as a simple discussion between two people with defined interests and stakes in the outcome is suddenly a three-way conversation with a third party who has an entirely different perspective. When this happens, maybe it is time to find that table!
Make sure that each person you add to a discussion is an integral part of the process with a stake in the outcome because adding even one more “stakeholder” increases the complexity of the negotiation process. Identifying, keeping track of and managing the varying interests, alternative perspectives, and different goals of multiple stakeholders is one of the special challenges of multi-party negotiations.
I find that if I keep in mind the multi-dimensional structure of every negotiation process I am able to manage the complexity as the discussions unfold.
Here’s a simple example of the horizontal dimension of negotiations across the table between two parties, part one:
Over breakfast, Jane raised the question of where she and her husband, Mark, would go for their summer vacation. She wanted to sign up for a tour of the Far East, through her college alumni association. But two weeks on a guided tour with a lot of other people he didn’t know was not what Mark had in mind. He needed to get away from people, crowds, and schedules. He wanted to charter a sailboat and explore the islands off the coast. In addition, they were still not sure whether their children, Adam and Sarah, would go with them. Jane and Mark had not argued (yet), but it was clear that they had a real problem here. Some of their friends handled problems like this by taking separate vacations. With both of them working full-time, though, one thing Jane and Mark did agree on was that they would take their vacation together.
Jane and Mark are two people with very different needs who are trying to work out a fairly simple problem. Yet this negotiation will likely extend over several weeks or even months. At the beginning of their discussion, they have one clear agreement–taking separate vacations is not an option. If you were Jane or Mark, what additional information would you want to know before you began a more focused discussion? What additional factors would you consider important to take into account? And, do any of those factors constrain their decision-making?
When I gave this scenario to graduate students in conflict resolution at Portland State University and asked them to role-play the negotiation, it was fascinating how frequently they reached a negotiated agreement based on compromise–Mark would accompany Jane on the tour of the Far East this summer, and then next summer they would rent a sailboat and explore the islands off the coast. The students made a series of assumptions about the ages, needs, and interests of the two children who were not part of the discussion or formal parties to the negotiation. Most of my students assumed the children were young, would not accompany their parents on their vacation to the Far East, and would either go to camp for two weeks or stay home with grandparents, friends, or other relatives.
After the initial role-play, I gave my students additional information about the interests of the other two stakeholders–the children–and the horizontal dimension of the negotiation process suddenly became much more complicated. Here’s part two:
That night at dinner with their children, Adam, their 17-year-old son, announced with excitement that his high-school Spanish teacher was organizing a trip for students to Cuernavaca, Mexico for three weeks in July and he really wanted to go with them. Forget soccer camp! He would live with a family, take Spanish classes during the day, and get to travel with the group to ancient ruins. The only problem was how to pay for the cost of the trip. Mark and Jane had not seen Adam so excited in a long time. Adam, a junior in high school, has never been particularly interested in or done well in school. He recently discovered his natural facility for learning languages, and Mark and Jane were encouraged by his expressed interest in going to college a year from now to study international relations.
Sarah, their 15-year-old daughter, was quiet while Adam talked. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Sarah was intrigued by the thought of traveling to a foreign land. Her mother had traveled extensively when she was in her twenties and Sarah knew it could be a life-changing experience. She was very close to her brother and scared that he was creating a life of his own independent of her and her parents and in another year would be gone off to college. She was looking forward to going on their annual summer vacation as a family. For as long as she could remember, the first two weeks of every August, Jane, Mark, Adam and Sarah would drive the entire day to a campground in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. There they would reconnect with friends from all over the country who returned to this campground at the same time each year. Sarah was looking forward to seeing her friends from afar, particularly a special boy she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about this past year.
My students were shocked by this second scenario! They were so deeply entrenched in their earlier assumptions about how young the children were and how easily their needs could be met by either attending camp or staying with friends or relatives that the students found it difficult to re-enter the role-play with two teenagers as parties. During the initial role-play, none of my students assumed Sarah and Adam were young adults with their own needs, desires, and stakes in the outcome.
This is a simple, every-day situation. Yet it illustrates how quickly the horizontal dimension of negotiations between two parties can become more complex as other parties take a seat at the table. What started out as a simple discussion between two parties–a simple negotiation from a structural perspective–became exponentially more complicated when two additional parties joined in.
Here are the main lessons from Jane’s and Mark’s dilemma:
1) Be careful about your assumptions. We all make them. And, in a negotiation process, it is important to know what assumptions you are making and check to see whether or not they are accurate.
2) Always look for other stakeholders who have an interest in the outcome. Remain open to the possibility that others may be interested in the issues as the discussions progress. Proactively seek them out and include them if possible in the negotiations.
3) Try a little brainstorming. Involve all of the stakeholders in a mutual exploration of the dilemma. Determine whether or not there are alternatives you haven’t considered and treat each suggestion with the respect it deserves.