Process is Power in Negotiation: Don't Leave Process to Chance

April 17, 2015 By Irma Tyler Wood

Never leave the process you use to negotiate to chance or to the person or group with whom you are negotiating.  Generally, I tell my clients to beware of any negotiation advice that begins with, “always,” or “never”.  Why then, have I begun this blog with a, “never,” statement?  The answer, the process you use determines the value you are able to create and claim at the negotiating table.  Value refers not just to dollars and other tangible resources, but also to efficiency, and effectiveness in reaching an agreement, and the ability to implement and sustain what you’ve agreed to.  The more important and/or complex a negotiation is, the more important it is to design the process you will use at the negotiation table.  

What do we mean by negotiation process?  Several analogies might be helpful in understanding what is meant by negotiation process.  If you think of negotiation as a journey then a negotiation process is your road map.  If you are currently at A and your goal in negotiations is to get to D, what is the route you will use to get there?  There are always multiple routes to your destination, designing your negotiation process allows a negotiator to choose the route that is most effective and efficient in getting to the desired outcome.  Thus, whether you realize it or not every negotiation has a process.  The only question is whether you explicitly negotiate the design of that process or simply let it happen to you. 
A negotiating process requires first exploring what process will best move you toward the goals you have for the negotiation, then sitting down with the other parties to the negotiation to explore and resolve key questions that will determine that process.  One sure way to get your negotiations off to a rocky start is to design a process in isolation of the other parties to the negotiation and then try and impose that process on them.  Even if your process is great, they are likely to resist it because they didn’t help shape it.  Think of any negotiation you are involved in as having two components.  First a negotiation about process, how we will negotiate to achieve our goals, and second a negotiation about substance, and what it is I want to achieve or accomplish at the negotiating table. 
A negotiating process begins with questions, not with answers.  A negotiator might begin process negotiations by saying, there are some questions I’d like to explore with you so that our negotiations are efficient and help us both achieve what we want.  I’m going to share some of my questions, you share yours and then we’ll discuss how we want to answer them in this negotiation.

Critical process questions to make explicit and reflect on with your team or organization and then at the negotiation table include, but are not limited to, the following:  
  • What are our goals, for the agreement, for the working relationship, for the process? 
  • If we are successful, how will we know it, i.e. what criteria will we use to define success?
  • Who should be at the negotiating table?  
  • What is our history with the other parties to this negotiation?
  • What is our current working relationship with those parties?  Are there “elephants” or “red flags” that need to be addressed?
  • Who must approve or say yes to the deal, internally, externally?
  • What is each organization’s process for deciding whether to say yes or no to what is negotiated?  Who are the key stakeholders and decision-makers in each organization?
  • Is outside expertise needed?  What criteria should be used to select the experts?
  • What issues must be addressed in order to reach an agreement?
  • In what sequence should we address these issues?
  • How and what will we communicate to key stakeholders not at the table?
  • What data will we need to make a wise decision?  Who will gather that data?
  • By when do we want to have an agreement?
  • When should we meet? Where should we meet?  How often should we meet? 
  • How will we formulate and communicate an agenda for each session
  • Are there internal or external allies who can help us/me achieve and/or implement agreement?  How and when should their support be enlisted? 
  • Who is likely to oppose what we want to accomplish? How/should we attempt to enlist their support or at least minimize the impact of their opposition?
  • What if any ground rules do we want to put in place for these negotiations regarding dealing with the press or other media, confidentiality, dealing with highly emotional or controversial issues, etc.
Process questions allow negotiators to look at the whole negotiation process before you start negotiating substance, i.e. what you want. An initial focus on process allows a negotiator to anticipate and plan for land mines, unexpected and different expectations on the other side of the negotiating table.  Designing the negotiation process allows a negotiator to shape the process so that it is most likely to yield the desired results.  Negotiating and jointly reaching agreement on the answers to these questions creates a common roadmap, increases trust, improves communication, allows parties to adequately prepare for negotiations and insures that negotiators are working from a proactive, rather than a reactive position.  
What happens if a negotiator ignores process and just plunges in and starts negotiating?  Negotiations are likely to be inefficient. If you don’t negotiate process up front you end up negotiating it as you go.  Process negotiations will arise when one party is surprised to learn that the other negotiator has different expectations and/or is using a process that makes achieving the goals of the negotiation difficult or impossible.  Without process negotiations, each party is constantly surprised and the surprises are often interpreted as acts of bad faith by the other party.  This ends up damaging the working relationships and creating mistrust among the parties to the negotiation.  Negotiating process issues up front allows negotiators to be confident that nothing critical as slipped through the cracks. It allows negotiators to focus on the things that brought them to the negotiation table in the first place, achieving their aubstantive goals.