Summary of "Handling the Human Side of the Negotiation Process"

Summary of

Handling the Human Side of the Negotiation Process

By Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, "Handling the Human Side of the Process," chapt. in Managing Public Disputes, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers,1988), pp. 224-257.

Carpenter and Kennedy discuss some of the people problems which can arise in the negotiation process, and suggest ways of dealing with such problems.

Bringing Parties into Negotiations

Getting parties to agree to try negotiation may present a problem. There are a number of reasons why parties may be reluctant to enter negotiations. Agreeing to negotiate may seem like a sign of weakness. Parties may be deeply distrustful of each other. A party may believe that it can get its way in the dispute by other means. The negotiation process might seem strange or risky, or other options for settling the dispute may seem preferable.

The conflict manager should evaluate the costs and benefits of the parties' various options for addressing the dispute, and decide whether negotiation is their best option. If negotiation is the best option, then the manager should use his or her analysis of the options to persuade the parties to try negotiation. The key is to convince the parties that negotiation offers the greatest potential benefits, and that the costs of pursuing the other options or continuing the conflict are too high. The manager may point out that adversarial processes are unpredictable, and therefore risky. Adversarial proceedings also tend to intensify the dispute, and may prompt the loser to retaliate. The conflict manager may also attempt to bring public pressure to bear on reluctant parties. When possible, the manger may ask powerful officials to compel the parties to negotiate. If the parties remain reluctant to enter into settlement negotiations, the manger may try to persuade them to simply try one meeting. That meeting will give the parties some familiarity with the negotiation process and setting, and may make them more willing to try further meetings. It is also important for the conflict manager to remain flexible regarding the negotiation program's format and goals. The manger should adjust the program to fit the unique situation at hand.

Educating New Parties

Occasionally, as deliberations progress and issues develop, new stakeholders emerge and it becomes necessary to involve new parties. Bringing a new party into existing negotiations can be disruptive; however, steps can be taken to minimize the disruption. First, all the existing parties must agree to bring in the new party, and must agree to accept the new party's representative. The original group members must acclimatize the new party to the negotiation group, keeping in mind that the new party has not gone through the trust building process and lacks a detailed understanding of the group's past discussion. The established parties must have patience. The meeting's chair should educate the new party about the issues and the negotiation process. It is important that the new parties be made to feel like equal participants in the process, despite their late entry.

Dealing with Different Levels of Negotiation Skill

Dispute participants may range from well-experienced negotiators to individuals with no negotiation experience at all. Some participants may understand the need for compromise while others approach negotiations with the intent to win. These differences in negotiation skills can be problematic. Generally the less experienced side is at a disadvantage in negotiations. The participation of unskilled parties can be very frustrating to more highly skilled negotiators. Inexperienced parties may be more likely to break the norms of negotiation. The more experienced negotiators see them as "fighting dirty."

Establishing ground rules for negotiation behavior can help deal with differing skill levels. Ground rules make clear to all parties what sort of behavior is expected and what actions are unacceptable. It may also be necessary to have conflict management training sessions for the participants before the negotiations begin. When skill levels differ the manger should be especially careful in pacing negotiations. The manger must allow the less skilled party sufficient time to consider issues and proposals. Inexperienced parties are likely to have inexperienced constituencies also. The conflict manager should also take care to insure that the inexperienced constituency is educated and kept informed.

Keeping Parties in Negotiations

Even though parties have decided to try negotiation, they may still decide to quit at some later point. The parties may be frustrated at the slower-than-expected pace of negotiations. They may be concerned that discussions are moving too fast, and fear that important issues will be overlooked. Parties may feel that they are being treated poorly. Or they may simply be so trapped in old, negative views of the other side and unproductive ways of interacting that they cannot have productive discussions. Sometimes changes in the context of the dispute give a party less reason to continue negotiating. The authors suggest techniques for handling each of these situations.

When the parties are frustrated at the slow pace, it can help to review the steps in the conflict management process with them and to reassure them that some impatience with the program is typical. It also helps to emphasize the progress that has been made. Since the group as a whole has responsibility for keeping the negotiations going, the manager may ask the rest of the group to respond to the disaffected member. The manager may persuade the disaffected party to try one more meeting. In some cases the progress really is stuck, and so the parties' frustration is reasonable. In these cases managers should consult with the other parties, looking for hidden obstacles in order to determine what is slowing progress. When parties fear that negotiations are moving too quickly, the manager should call for a break in negotiations, to allow the concerned party time to review the issue and build confidence in their agreements.

Ground rules can help to avoid offensive behavior and poor treatment of the parties. It may be helpful to review the ground rules, and to explain why ground rules are important. If a participant continues to behave badly or to undermine the process the may consider asking that person to leave the negotiations. Sometimes the problem lies in the personality of the particular individual. In this case the negotiating parties may ask the problematic individual's constituency group to appoint a new representative.

Negative stereotypes often create self-fulfilling expectations about the other side's behavior. In such cases the manager needs to keep the parties together long enough that their new experiences begin to erode old stereotypes and ways of interacting.

Changes in the context of a dispute may give a party good reasons for withdrawing from negotiations. For instance, changes in the political climate may have resulted in the loss of constituency support. When a party must withdraw from negotiations the other participants should be made aware of their reasons for leaving. The manger may then ask the group whether they wish to continue without that party, or whether they would prefer to suspend negotiations until the situation becomes more clear.

Handling Emotion

Intense or out-of-control emotions can disrupt negotiations. The manger should look for the reasons behind a party's strong emotions. Fear of loss or change, for instance, is often expressed as anger. Ultimately, however, whether they are reasonable or not, people's emotions are real and must be taken seriously.

Steps can be taken before meetings to reduce tensions and avoid emotional outbursts. All the relevant parties should be informed about the reasons for the meeting and about the organization of the meeting ahead of time. It is important for all participants to be able to listen to each other without arguing, and to understand that hearing the other side's views does not entail agreeing with them. Ground rules should forbid personal attacks on other participant's integrity or motives. The manger must enforce these rules and interrupt any personal attacks. Acknowledging peoples' feelings and the concerns behind those feelings can help to keep emotions under control. Conflict mangers should avoid using sensitive terms and should identify and avoid sensitive topics. Tension can often be reduced by the careful use of humor, and by addressing people by name rather than impersonally.

When one party tries to dominate a meeting with their concerns, the manager may ask the group as a whole whether they want to spend their time on that topic. The manager may decide to end a meeting rather than allow it to continue out of control. When a party challenges the manger's credibility or claims that the process is biased, the manger should ask the other group members to observe and decide for themselves whether there is bias. The authors observe that the manger must "act incisively when the boundaries of decency and fairness are breached."[p. 248] Allowing such breaches usually encourages further violations.

Dealing with the Desire for Revenge

There are many reasons why people shift their focus from having their interests met to getting revenge against an opponent. One party may feel that they have been betrayed or threatened by another. They may feel that they have been attacked by the accusatory rhetoric of the other party. Parties may simply want to make someone pay for their fear and pain. Often the goal of revenge is not made explicit, so the manger must be alert for the presence of revenge as an unacknowledged goal. As always, the manager must shape their response to this problem to fit the particular case. When revenge is not the main priority for a party, the manger may invoke the ground rules to avoid blaming questions and move to quietly drop the issue. When a party is centrally concerned with some grievance, the manger may do better to acknowledge the issue and perhaps offer an explanation. If the desire for revenge is so great that destructive attacks cannot be controlled, the manger should refuse to convene a meeting.

Reducing the Risk of Negotiation

Escalated conflicts tend also to become polarized. Extremists take over the conflict, and any willingness to negotiate with the other side is likely to be taken as a sign that the negotiator has "sold out" and betrayed the cause. The other side may even exploit this dynamic in negotiation, and use it to undermine support for the opposing negotiator within his own constituency. And so agreeing to negotiate can pose a substantial risk to an individuals' reputation and relationships. These risks can be minimized by choosing negotiators whose positions and constituency support are very strong, and who hold central positions in their parties. Another way to decrease the risk is to have representatives attend as observers rather than participants. As the negotiations proceed and become established, the risk of participation may decrease and the observer can shift to a more active role. Regular communication with a negotiator's constituency can reassure them that the negotiator has not betrayed them, and help the negotiator maintain their support. Steps may also be taken to reduce the potential harm that negotiators face. If influential people can be persuaded to support negotiations, the parties' constituencies may be less likely to reject the negotiators. Getting representatives of both sides to support negotiation can have a similar effect.