“The dog’s agenda is simple, fathomable, overt: I want. “I want to go out, come in, eat something, lie here, play with that, kiss you. There are no ulterior motives with a dog, no mind games, no second-guessing, no complicated negotiations or bargains, and no guilt trips or grudges if a request is denied.”
― Caroline Knapp
It is a tradition in my family that, when we receive a new and somewhat complicated item, we often dive right in to assembling it without ever reading the instructions. This has often been to our own peril. The instructions are there to make your life easier. The same is true for negotiations. Hopefully you have had an opportunity to read the first four steps in the process as they are there to make the day of negotiations much easier. As a review, before you ever come to the negotiations table you want to assess your interests and the interests of the other parties. You then want to brainstorm options to meet the interests of the parties. You must then research the options to determine which ones are feasible and how well they meet your interests and the interests of the other party. Finally, before you begin the actual negotiations, you want to make sure that the ground rules of the process have been agreed upon. Once all of this is completed, it is time to negotiate.
You are well prepared for the negotiations by knowing your interests, your options and the tools that will get you where you would like to be. You must keep in mind throughout the actual negotiations that the ultimate goal is to reach an agreement or to know that you made your best effort but that an agreement was not possible. Not all negotiations will result in an agreement because one side or the other felt that they could do better without the agreement. However, if an agreement is possible you want to continually work toward the end goal.
Some feel that an agreement is only possible if everyone gives up something and no one leaves with everything they want. I find this type of “search for the lowest common denominator” type of negotiations to be defeatist. While compromise is an important part of negotiations, by working collaboratively toward meeting the interests of the participants, the parties can often find ways to expand the pie and meet the key interests of everyone. It is true that at times each side may have to compromise on some item that they wanted, these decisions can be made in the spirit of reaching a deal that will work for everyone. Some key elements to negotiations are to keep your emotions in check and keep your focus on the end results. It is often easy to become frustrated when the other side uses negotiation techniques that are counter-productive such as bullying, dishonesty, or focusing on the past as a victim. However, with some strategic planning you will hopefully be able to stay at the table and reach a satisfactory agreement even with the most difficult party.
The first step is to make sure that everyone has agreed to the issues to be decided. In mediation this is done by setting out the agenda. Even if a formal agenda is not decided upon, it is good for you to have with you a list of the items that you need addressed. The fastest way to destroy an agreement reached after long negotiations is to suddenly raise a new issue that has never been discussed until after the parties are concluding the negotiations and are ready to sign an agreement.
It is often good to start the negotiations by considering if there are items where the parties have an agreement or are close to an agreement in priciple. In a divorce if both parties agree that the children should spend equal time with each parent then this is an agreement that can be checked off the list. The parties may still need to discuss and agree upon the actual time sharing schedule, but the interest of the children spending equal time with each parent is a major decision. By reaching the easier agreements first you will develop some momentum towards addressing the harder issues.
Often inexperienced negotiators will ask “who should make the first offer?” There is some debate on this topic, with some experienced negotiators believing that the person who makes the first reasonable offer has established an “anchor” and is in a better position, while other negotiators prefer to allow the “other” party to make an offer so that they can counter close to their position and pull the first party to their ground. Entire books have been written regarding these strategies of negotiation. However, in the case of principled negotiations, the reality is that if each party is motivated to find an agreement then the order of the offers will not have as much effect as the reasonableness of each side to consider the interests and positions of the other.
As the negotiations move forward there are some strategies that help keep the process on track. The first is perhaps the most important. This is to keep your focus on interests and energy toward resolution. When you begin to feel anxious, angry or any negative emotion, step back and take a minute to process. The biggest impediment to productive negotiations is often the visceral reaction. For example, in a divorce negotiation if you ask for equal time sharing and your spouse responds by attacking you and criticizing the fact that you never took an interest in the children before and proposes that you should only have every other weekend with the children, it would be easy to respond to the attack and argue about who took care of the children more or attack back by saying that your spouse was always controlling of the children and never let you be a part of their lives. This will cause the negotiations to spiral into a battle for which there will never be a winner. The better response would be to take a minute to absorb what was said and think about your reply. Consider your interests (and your spouse and children’s interests) in the issue and develop your response. You may find that agreeing with your spouse that you did not put enough time into parenting in the past but discussing how you want to change this and feel that the children would benefit by having two actively involved parents is a better approach. Look at the full calendar and discuss how the time can be managed to allow each of you to have the most time with the children.
It is often also easier to consider each agenda item individually. Work out one item before moving on to the next. This will allow each party to focus their attention on the interests involved and avoid “cross contamination” of very sensitive or emotional items with the ones that may be easier to address. Keep in mind that not all negotiations must be resolved in one day. While simple issues may be addressed in one sitting, complicated negotiations such as divorce or other family issues often require several sessions to come to a complete resolution. If the parties try to cram all the negotiations into one day they may find that they are reaching agreement only to end the emotional roller-coaster or out of sheer exhaustion.
If certain issues seem impossible to resolve consider bringing in additional help. A respected neutral family member or spiritual leader or a professional mediator may assist the parties to break an impasse and reach a final resolution to the issues. Be cautious that the person selected understands that their role is to be a neutral facilitator of the conversation and not a “judge” or arbiter of the conflict. The confusion of the roles of a neutral is why it is often better served by a professional.