Preparing for Negotiation On the Fly


Berton Lee Lamb and Susan K. Driver

We often read the advice that we should be well prepared for negotiation. This is sometimes directed at one-on-one negotiations. Buying a car is an example. “Do your research beforehand” they advise. This sounds straightforward but even a simple negotiation can become quite complicated and time-consuming. You are not sure how much preparation is enough.

The problem of preparing for a multi-party negotiation can be even more daunting. It may actually be impossible to know when we have sufficiently prepared! Yet trying to be overly comprehensive may reduce your effectiveness. 

Although there are a few basic lessons about multi-party negotiations, preparation is usually one of the main recommendations. In reality, we often find ourselves getting ready for negotiations “on the fly.” We simply don’t have the time or resources to carry out a comprehensive preparation.

Here is a guide for preparing to negotiate “on the fly:”

How to scope and plan:

a. Who should be contacted?

Including legitimate parties in a negotiation is important and is especially important in multi-party negotiations. However, in complex negotiations there are many engaged parties as well as an additional group who might have a stake in the results. Taken together, these are “stakeholders.” What should you do?

First, identify the parties that are directly engaged in the problem at hand. For example, if the issue is a project dealing with water, land, or air there will almost always be one or more parties that are proposing something or whose interests might be directly affected. They are important stakeholders. 

Second, identify the parties that have authority to make regulatory decisions about the dispute. If that includes your agency or organization, keep in mind your decision-maker may not be the only regulator. Other regulators are also important stakeholders.

Third, identify the parties that normally support you in resolving similar issues. Find these supporters from among the interested parties or parties which have authority to regulate issues related to the dispute. Some potential supporters may not be the main participants. Consider consulting with these parties to see whether they want to be involved or at least kept apprised of the negotiation. Supporters are potential stakeholders. 

Finally, for any given issue there may be parties which don’t fit into one of the three categories or are simply unknown to you.  What will you do when contacted by one of these entities? Consider developing a plan for how you will respond when an unidentified party asks to participate in the discussions.

b. How to assess the problem, personalities, and possibilities

The first thing is to scope out the potential outcomes from this negotiation. You might want to brainstorm with colleagues. Develop a picture of where the negotiation might end up. As you scope the situation determine whether or not you need to be involved in the negotiation.

The second thing is to figure out if you need to negotiate. Can you achieve what you want in some other venue? In that case, your organization might be well served to attend the negotiation but not bargain. Why offer trades when you could get a satisfactory result somewhere else? However, if you see a good deal emerging from the discussion there may be an opportunity to help craft a better solution than you could result from the other venue. Be ready for this.

The third thing is to determine is whether or not you need to be involved in the negotiation. Maybe you find yourself in a situation where you could be involved but are not required to do so.  Is there someone else who would be more effective given what you know about the dynamics between the negotiating parties? 

The fourth thing is to look around the (likely) negotiation table at the parties’ and their representatives. How have these parties and these representatives negotiated in the past? If you don’t have personal experience with these parties you might ask colleagues for their impressions.

c. How to open the conversation with the other parties

How you open is going to depend, in large part, on whether or not you have a strong opportunity to achieve what you want without negotiating. If so, you might consider opening the negotiation by asking questions and listening carefully to the answers.

When you need to negotiate and know what outcome you are looking for you, will need to decide whether or not to make the first offer. 

If you plan to make the first—or an early—offer, present it as positively as possible, try to include elements that you think are important to other parties, and let the others know that you think this problem can be resolved.

Your first offer (or a counter-offer) should set the stage. To do that means that you have crafted an offer that is as much of your interests as you can reasonably expect to achieve. Don’t reduce your offer so that you are starting at some kind of minimum.

Things to consider during the initial negotiation meeting:

a. How to respond to an offer.

When you hear an offer from another party ask questions; satisfy your curiosity. It is often best to not react to another party’s offer before you are sure you understand that offer. This usually takes considerable discussion and may requires several meetings.

You may wish to develop a counter-offer. Your counter-offer may incorporate some of the other party’s offer. Ask for time to do this. 

b. When to agree.

It is often beneficial to accept interim agreements. Sometimes those agreements can be conditional; based on achieving a final, comprehensive settlement. 

When looking at a comprehensive settlement—or interim agreements—be sure you understand the terms. What will you be expected to do? What do you expect other parties to do? Ask questions to make sure your understanding is correct.

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