Foundations of successful negotiations

The editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat in Finland wrote that the foundation of successful negotiation ”lies on mutual trust and respect, a mutual vision of the situation, and a shared goal.” That is somewhat idealistic.

While these things can be helpful, they cannot be required as the foundations for success. It is virtually inevitable that the political parties he was writing about have low levels of trust and respect for each other and they will find it difficult to agree a mutual vision and shared goal – at this stage.

Trust takes time to develop. At the outset of a negotiation, it is normally best to be neutral about trust, neither trusting nor distrusting the people with whom we negotiate until we know them better. A more realistic starting point is for the parties to recognise that they are likely to be better off by working together and to explore that possibility through a constructive dialogue. Being better off means satisfying more of their own interests than they could by failing to agree and being left with their alternative. Sound communication, with a realistic focus on this interdependence, helps to form the bridge that makes workable coalitions possible.

I suspect that Finnish politicians are similar to those in most countries, they genuinely believe that they are seeking to make the country a better place for its citizens. They may disagree how to achieve that end and as observers we may think they are deluded, but politicians are usually sincere in their belief that they are trying to do the right thing for the country. If the parties stop focusing on their demands and positions and seek to understand what they and the other parties are really interested in, they will find that they have more in common than they currently acknowledge. Then they will need to expand their thinking and be more creative in order to explore how those interests can be satisfied in ways that are mutually acceptable.

When they find they have conflicting interests, as will inevitably happen, they must seek to agree a resolution that is fair and reasonable – some objective, external benchmark is helpful. Hard bargaining seldom achieves this legitimacy. Resorting to power undermines constructive negotiation in many ways. It makes people cagey about sharing information and reluctant to accept the validity of another party’s proposals. It also reduces commitment to the outcome.

Many people perceive negotiations purely in terms of the bargaining and haggling that commonly takes place in commercial deals. But trust and respect tend to diminish when people start horse trading. In this model, power is the key to success. But sound negotiation is much more than such horse trading. It embraces the full process through which parties with different starting points seek to agree a good way forward. The most constructive approach includes a lot of respectful persuasion and problem-solving to find the best solution, while minimising the role of power. It is very demanding.

Sadly, it looks like Finland’s politicians, like ours in Britain last year, have adopted the cruder approach. It’s a bit late to start retraining the party leaders in Finland as crisis negotiators, but I’m sure a good mediator would be very helpful in their current situation. Pity I don’t speak Finnish.

Blog post by Patrick Esson