The fundamentals of negotiations

A negotiation can be understood as 'a process of mutual persuasion and adjustment which aims at combining non-identical actor preferences into a single joint decision' (Rittberger, 1983, p170). Understood in this way, negotiations are a ubiquitous mechanism for decision-making at every level of social interaction and among a range of actors. Family members negotiate on their holiday destination, traders barter over goods, trade unions negotiate with employers over pay deals, governments launch negotiations on cross-border concerns.

For any negotiation to take place, three key conditions must be fulfilled. Firstly, two or more actors must be in a situation of interdependence, that is, they must share an area of common interest where the actions of one will affect the other(s). Secondly, their interdependence must be characterized by discord, that is, with the actors preferring different courses of action. These two conditions are fundamental; 'without common interest, there is nothing to negotiate for, without conflict, nothing to negotiate about' (Ikle, 1964, p2). Thirdly, the actors involved must (implicitly or explicitly) eschew other means of resolving their case of discordant interdependence, notably, the use of overt force or having recourse to an independent adjudicator.

The negotiation process will typically pass through a number of stages. Firstly, participants will need to agree the agenda, or mandate, for the negotiation, setting out, for example, the issues to be covered, the deadline, and the main forum for the talks. Agreeing these basic conditions for the negotiation may in itself be contentious. The negotiation process proper will often start with a period of exploration of the issues on the agenda, which may involve gathering data and information for collective analysis by the negotiators, or calling for independent technical input.

A key stage in the negotiation will be when participants make formal proposals, expressing divergent preferences, or positions, on at least some of the issues under negotiation. The divergent positions will tend to reflect a mix of both tangible perceived interests and intangible values and principles, of which the latter are likely to be particularly stable and less amenable to change. The tabling of proposals will often mark a transition from exploration to bargaining, after which negotiators explicitly engage with one another's positions to devise solutions that can bring them to agreement, through mutual compromises, trade-offs, linkages, packaging, side-payments, adding and subtracting issues and so on.1 Bargaining will be relatively low key at first, focusing on more peripheral, less contentious issues, becoming more intense over time. The final stage in a negotiation is deal-making, where negotiators will start to reach agreement on the issues on the table, starting with the more straightforward ones. Negotiations traditionally end in a dramatic finale, where the more difficult questions are finally tackled through intensive bargaining. It can often seem as if almost all the real work is done in the finale. The negotiation will end when negotiators conclude, often in the face of a deadline, that they have adjusted their positions, and others have adjusted theirs, as much as they can. If, at this stage, the compromise solution on the table is perceived as preferable to what the negotiators could obtain without an accord, then substantive agreement is likely to be reached.

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