by Mary Skelton Roberts

Senior Associate,
Program For Community Problem Solving

The Program for Community Problem Solving is a division of the National Civic League that works to help develop and manage collaborative approaches to decision-making.

If you are entering into a negotiation, the preparation you do in advance is just as important as what takes place during the negotiation. One approach is to begin by developing a clear picture or list of the things that are important for you to achieve. As you develop your list, prioritize them in order of importance and ask yourself: Is this something I could live without? Prioritizing your interests will help you later in assessing where your interest lie vis-a-vis those of others. The next step is to get a better understanding of the parties you are about to enter into negotiations with. This process is known as a situation analysis. To conduct an effective situation analysis, you should ask yourself the following questions:

Who are the parties?

It is essential to understand who makes decisions among the other parties, and how those decisions are made. Who are the people with authority? Who are the people affected by the decision? Who has the power to obstruct an agreement or its implementation?

It is of primary importance to identify all the long and short term stakeholders, and include them in the discussion. Stakeholders not included in the negotiation may attempt to disrupt the process because they feel they were not involved early enough to impact the outcome. Therefore, a plan must be developed that responds to the stakeholders’ needs and expectations.

How are they organized?

Does each group give authority to its representatives or leaders to make decisions? What is their structure: Hierarchical? Collective? If decisions are made collectively, you cannot rely on a single member to speak for the group. Your role is to be clear that you won’t commit to anything that you do not have the authority to implement.

What are the past relationships?

Who does and doesn’t get along? Does the parks and recreation department have a longstanding feud with the “friends” organization? Does the mayor work well with several important citizen groups? Do the two council members critical to this process not get along? If you know the history between organizations, you may be able to better broker agreements between them.

Do these people really want to work together in the future?

If the parties are not going to continue working together, they will be much less willing to make concessions. People are naturally more willing to compromise when they realize this is a long term relationship.

What are their interests?

What is most important to each of these stakeholder groups? As you move forward in the negotiation process, it is important to continue to go back to this list of interests to see if they are being met for each group. If you are not sure if your assumptions about those interests are correct, the best thing to do is ask: “What is important to you?” There are problems you may encounter in this critical step: they may not always know what they want; or their interests may change during the negotiation.

If this is the case, keep your questions specific: What about this is making you uncomfortable? What would you need to feel comfortable about this situation? Why do you feel different about this issue?

Alternative Forums

Are there another avenues for certain stakeholders that are an alternative to negotiating? For example, would it be better for certain stakeholder groups if the negotiation failed? It will be important to ensure there are enough incentives for people to want to participate in a negotiation.

Understanding all these elements will help you keep a constant, objective perspective on the progress of your negotiations. The most important things to remember are: keep asking questions of your collaborators; make sure you have involved as many stakeholders as possible; remember that you have to address the other parties’ needs in your suggestions; make sure that you keep the commitments you make, and that the people you make them with have the authority to do so.

Remember that there may be multiple negotiations going on. Some members are not only negotiating with you, but must go back and negotiate with their group. So it is important to always check to make sure you are on the same page. This also reinforces for other stakeholders that they need to be sure they are getting approval from their group throughout the process

If you understand why people are opposed to a suggestion, and you are able to work with them through those difficulties, it will be much easier to build their trust. However, to build trust, you need to show consistently that what you say will be implemented.

From Great Parks/Great Cities: Boston, 1997, a publication from the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.