Negotiating: Five Things You Need to Know
By Gail Bambrick
What’s the best way to deal with recalcitrant foes, and when is it better to just walk away?
Negotiating skills are key to success at work, at home—and certainly in politics. Case in point: the negotiations over the tax-cut extensions in December. Some Democrats accused President Barack Obama of caving to Republicans—basically of being a bad negotiator. How should Obama prepare to come to the table in future negotiations—and how can we know if he has made a good deal?
In our continuing series “Five Things You Need to Know,” Jeswald W. Salacuse, the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law at the Fletcher School, shares his lifelong expertise in the art of negotiating and tells how the techniques don’t just apply to politics inside the Beltway.
1. Understand your goals and stay focused on what you are trying to achieve. Goals are driven by the interests you are trying to pursue. You really have to stay focused on those goals, because one tendency, especially in negotiations that have been going on a long time, is that you start to think, “The deal is really what I want—I want to get an agreement.” But if the agreement doesn’t help you reach your goals, it is probably best to not make a deal.
2. Consider the alternatives. Compare your alternatives away from the table to the deal the other side is proposing. In the case of the fiscal and tax-cut deal in Washington in December, for example, I think one of the questions Obama had to ask himself was whether the deal with Mitch McConnell was better than not making any deal at all. I think the president weighed the continuing benefits to the rich against the additional economic stimulus and his desire to extend unemployment benefits to people who are really hurting and concluded that the deal with McConnell was better than no deal at all. Some critics said that it was not a good deal—that not making a deal would have been better. Obama clearly felt differently. That’s why it is important to know your goals and understand the various options for achieving your goals besides an agreement.
3. Understand the other side’s interests. Parties go to the negotiating table and state a position: “I want this particular thing.” But you really need to understand what interest is driving them. One example is the 1978 Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Israel came to the table occupying part of the Sinai. Egypt insisted on a return of the land, while Israel wanted to hang on to a portion as a buffer against Egypt’s army, one of the largest in the Middle East. Through negotiation, it became very clear that Israel’s concern was not occupying the land, but assuring its security. With that knowledge, the two countries agreed on ways to give Israel security and allow Egypt to regain all the Sinai, a deal that led to the Camp David Accords.
You have to understand the interests behind the stated positions, and what various ways you can satisfy those interests. You also have to realize that people usually have multiple interests. It may well be that some of Obama’s opponents have an interest in destroying his presidency, but others may also have an interest in being re-elected and delivering certain benefits to their constituency. A careful analysis of those interests may help the president craft deals that further his goals and at the same time gain the support he needs from political opponents. Lyndon Johnson was a master at that kind of political deal making.
4. Find a legitimate argument. The legitimacy of your proposals—and those of the other side—is important. When you make a deal, you want to feel it was legitimate—that you weren’t taken advantage of. An acceptable basis of legitimacy can also persuade. For example, if you try to negotiate a salary raise by saying, “I need the money because I have this great condo and a new Ferrari to pay for,” your employer won’t be persuaded. On the other hand, if you can show that other companies are paying a higher salary for the same job you are doing, that is a legitimate reason for a raise. If there is no legitimacy to justify a proposal, then one side usually feels it’s being exploited.
People will look at any political deal Obama makes and ask, “What is the basis for this?” Is it just one side exerting power over the other, or is there some objective basis that we can accept as fair and in the interests of the country? The opening of negotiations is often a time for the two sides to discuss legitimate bases for a particular solution to a problem.
5. Set the right frame. How you frame the issue under negotiation can be important in convincing the other side—and your supporters—that you are doing the right thing. The conflict in the early ’90s between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich almost shut down the government. The way Clinton framed it was to say, “These guys are being very obstructive; they’re putting the whole country at risk over this issue of a balanced budget.” Clinton framed it in a way that was more persuasive to the people of the country, which is why Gingrich and his colleagues did not prevail.
Now this same issue is coming up again because Congress will consider raising the debt limit in this country in April. Some of the Tea Party people are saying no to that—but that would shut down the government. So the question is, how is Obama going to frame this conflict? To succeed, the president needs to frame the issue so that people understand that increasing the debt limit will allow the economic recovery to continue and the government to provide the services and security that people need Opponents will probably try to frame their refusal to increase the debt limit as an attempt to bring fiscal sanity to the country and protect the financial future of our children and grandchildren. It will be interesting to see which frame the American public will find more convincing.
Gail Bambrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.