Negotiation Lesson #5: Labor Management Negotiations

September 23, 2016 By Irma Tyler Wood

Negotiating When There is No Trust, No Working Relationship and a Bad History

One morning in early January, the phone in my office rang and the individual on the other end of the line laid out the following negotiation challenges:

  • My name is ___________ and our organization has to negotiate with the most powerful union in our state.
  • They openly brag that they’ve won everything but the kitchen sink. 
  • Contract negotiations three years ago were nasty and contentious; as a result, we don’t like them and they don’t like us. 
  • We don’t trust them, but we need to negotiate a contract that is good for our organization, and will be ratified by our board. 
  • The board, by the way, is recommending we offer a 0% salary increase. 
  • We need to have a contract ratified by April, before the budget is finalized. 

What do you recommend?

After asking several questions about the goals, history and working relationships between these two organizations, it became clear that business as usual in negotiations would not do.  Einstein is reported to have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.  Both groups needed a new negotiation paradigm and a new set of negotiation skills to achieve better negotiation results.  I recommended, “Joint Negotiation Training.”

Joint negotiation training invites all of the parties of a negotiation to a 2-3 day workshop in which the parties:

  • Articulate their substantive and process goals for the negotiation.
  • Learn new skills in collaborative, interest based negotiation.
  • Use a facilitator to jointly identify and discuss the “Red Flags” and “Elephants,” that could derail their negotiations.
  • Develop a process and ground rules designed to build trust, improve communication and create an atmosphere of mutual respect for their upcoming negotiations.

It is important to note no actual negotiation of substantive issues goes on during the joint negotiation workshop.  The joint negotiation workshop provides preparation for and a joint launch of the negotiations.

I advised the person I spoke with that it would be quite natural for the union to be suspicious about this idea, and so rather than ask the union to say yes to engaging in the joint negotiation workshop, he/she should ask them to say yes to coming to a meeting to learn more about the joint negotiation workshop process.   

Having all of the parties of an upcoming negotiation engage in a joint negotiation workshop is powerful because joint negotiation workshops:

  1. Give all of the parties a common vocabulary and a common process for conducting their negotiations.  It increases participant’s skills and confidence in their ability to negotiate.
  2. Give the parties a chance to look back and learn from their past mistakes without blaming and attacking each other.  The facilitated workshop allows them to air and discuss the old history, bad relationships, “Red Flags,” and “Elephants,” that have created suspicion, distrust, a lack of mutual respect and an inability to have candid communication between and among the parties.
  3. Allow the parties to then set ground rules/norms in place to prevent or mitigate the impact of these potential barriers, so that they don’t derail current negotiations. 
  4. Allow all parties to jointly plan and design the negotiation process for the upcoming negotiation.  The parties walk out of the workshop with a joint plan and schedule they have developed.
  5. Build trust, mutual respect, and the capacity to conduct candid communication between and among the parties to the negotiation.  They also increase the capacity of participants to preserve good working relationships as they work through the tough issues that invariably arise when negotiating complex issues and contracts.

To learn more about how Ki ThoughtBridge facilitates joint negotiation workshops contact Ki ThoughtBridge at

Register today for the Enhancing Your Negotiation Skills Workshop coming April 19 & 20, 2017!