Let's make a deal: the fine art of give and take


MANAGING THROUGH THE RECESSION: From the fruit market stall to Government Buildings, successful negotiators share common attributes. John Holdenspoke to some seasoned mediators about the tactics of successful negotiation

NO ONE would envy them. As the whole country looks on, the social partners sit knee-deep in the economic woes of the country. They’ve been there before, except this time there is a sense of urgency previously unfelt.

There will be a shared commonality of purpose, despite each party’s differing position. The successful negotiator must achieve his objectives without alienating other parties. To do this one must be patient, empathetic and, above all, well informed.

“There’s a certain sequence to events,” explains Des Geraghty, former president of Siptu. “Firstly, it’s important that both parties identify and understand all of the issues involved. It’s very hard to reach a solution if you haven’t fully identified the problem first, something I have noticed about the current crisis. Being able to recognise early on what the different perspectives are is crucial.”

In these early stages an appropriate climate for negotiation must be established. “The type of posture you adopt at this stage will influence the climate during the talks,” explains DCU professor of organisational behaviour Patrick Flood. “If you are aggressive in the build-up stages the negotiations tend to be aggressive.”

Hostility from any party can be avoided if there is a mutual sense of trust. “Even if both sides disagree, they must recognise that each has a position to defend,” argues Geraghty. “In the Middle Eastern conflict, for example, there is a total lack of trust on each side. Trust is usually established over a long period of time. It’s something that’s hard fought and hard won.”

Trust and respect are key to finding consensus, but you don’t need to be too familiar, as the Labour Party’s Ruairí Quinn, who has been involved in negotiating programmes for government as well as with the social partners, stresses. “You can’t have successful negotiations without respect,” he says. “You don’t have to like the person; in actual fact, that can sometimes be a distraction. But you do need to know who you are negotiating with, what their interests are and therefore understand, from your perspective, why they are making impossible demands.

“It’s not a victory or defeat scenario,” he adds. “Both sides need to win so patience is important. You must help the other party to persuade the people they represent that what they have attained is the most they could have expected under the circumstances.”

As the saying goes, “Patience is a virtue; seldom in a woman, never in a man”, but always in the negotiator. “If at all possible talks shouldn’t be rushed,” says Geraghty. “In a major national crisis the media tend to scream for immediate solutions but in bargaining you have to have flexibility. Immediate solutions will not be obtained after one set of talks. It is an ongoing process.”

However, the luxury of time is one rarely afforded to the negotiation process.

“All talks have timelines,” says John Dunne, former director of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (Ibec). “If you don’t, it takes one of the key pressures off. But if there’s no timeline then there’s no sense of urgency, which makes it very difficult to persuade people to come to decisions.”

In the case of the current round of social partnership talks, everyone knows that the sooner a deal is made, the quicker the country’s economy will be on the road to recovery.

“If you’re on a ship and it’s about to sink, it tends to focus the mind quickly,” says Flood. The timing of addressing issues is critical and there are a number of schools of thought on the matter.

“If you start by putting the least difficult items on the table it helps to create a climate of concession early on,” says Flood. “Others, however, believe dealing with the toughest issue first is the best way forward. It’s really a question of judging the best tactics on the day.”

A good way to reach some form of consensus is by setting up a review mechanism so that decisions made don’t turn out to be complete leaps into the unknown.

“If you can avoid a decision being a ‘once off’ it takes the pressure off,” says Quinn. “So adding a review clause in a contract, which is very tightly controlled and only capable of being implemented in specific circumstances, can help to move things along.”

But is it fair to say that with any negotiation situation, all sides go into the talks looking for more than they expect to get? Or is this a simplistic approach that really only applies to buying a used car?

“This is a typical strategy which has been tried and trusted for centuries but you need to be realistic,” says Flood. “You may go in looking for more than you expect but you need to know what your fall-back position is, ie, what you and those you represent are willing to settle for.”

“Some will go in with an exaggerated position,” Geraghty says. “But my attitude was always to indicate early on what the bottom line was. You might have to move a bit from that position, but at least people know where you’re coming from. If you have a reputation for always asking for more than you expect, no one will take you seriously.”

This is just one tactic used to gain the upper hand in negotiations. Others include the use of side conferences. Each side will usually have a chief negotiator who will engage in frequent breaks and side conferences to discuss their options.

“You do need key decision makers at the table though,” stresses Flood. “It is not acceptable to continuously refer back to other parties. You only bargain with people who can close the deal.”

The ability to empathise is important both for gaining trust but also gaining insight into how much the other side will concede.

“Essentially, you want everyone to go away from the table with something that they wanted so that all can claim victory,” says Flood. “So it is important to listen extremely carefully. Note-taking is essential as there are always giveaways from the other side, some of which are deliberate, some are hidden.”

Bringing an unknown quantity to the table is also an option. In the 1992 negotiations for the programme for government between Labour and Fianna Fáil, both parties deliberately brought relatively unknown party members to the talks: Brian Cowen for Fianna Fáil and Mervyn Taylor for Labour. “Both sides were trying to introduce an element of strangeness and so put the other off,” says Quinn. “It helped to create a sense of tension. As soon as I found out Brian Cowen would be accompanying Bertie in the negotiations, however, I proceeded to find out absolutely everything I could about him.”

Tactics aside, it is the simple truth that sometimes a deal cannot be done. Being able to recognise that is central to the negotiator’s remit. “Generally speaking, professionals are not negotiating for themselves but on behalf of others,” says John Dunne. “That’s why knowing how far your own people are prepared to go is important.

“If you represent a group of employers, employees or anyone else, you must treat them like constituents, made up of all sorts of people with different positions,” he adds. “There may, however, be a broad position and the trick is to find out what that position is.”