We Need a Larger Theory of Negotiation: The Importance of Pre-Negotiation Phases
By Harold Saunders
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Harold Saunders, "We Need a Larger Theory of Negotiation: The Importance of Pre-Negotiation Phases," in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp. 57-70.
Saunders examines the pre-negotiation phase, and looks for ways to encourage parties to make the decision to commit to negotiations. Sanders observes that "In many cases, persuading parties to a conflict to commit to a negotiated settlement is even more complicated, time- consuming, and difficult than reaching agreement once negotiations have begun."[p. 57] This observation holds for conflicts ranging from international to personal, from Arab-Israeli talks to marriage counseling. In particular Saunders argues that understanding the pre-negotiation phase is crucial to a better understanding of the peace process. And, given the number of intractable conflicts around the world, a better understanding of how to initiate peace processes is very much needed today. Saunders draws many of his examples from the Middle East peace process.
The main task of the pre-negotiation phase is to get the parties to commit to negotiating their differences. This task is accomplished primarily by identifying and removing obstacles to negotiation. There are a number of obstacles to negotiations. One obstacle is that the parties to a conflict may be unable to organize for negotiation. For instance, there may be internal differences of opinion which make the group unable to organize itself and present a consistent set of interests. A related obstacle is the absence of a credible representative or spokesperson for the group.
There may also be a number of substantial obstacles to opening negotiations. A first step in the pre-negotiation phase is to define the problem at hand. Parties may be unwilling to negotiate because they have very different views of the nature of the problem. A first step toward negotiations is to get the parties to agree on a common definition of the problem. Without a common definition the parties will merely talk past each other. Even if negotiations occurred they would likely be unproductive, and would simply distract attention from the necessary task of defining the problem.
A second step is to get the parties to agree to negotiate. Before committing to negotiations, leaders must come to certain conclusions. They must decide that continuing in the present situation is not in their interests. They must decide that some fair settlement is possible, that is, each side must have some general idea of what an acceptable settlement might look like. Sander's notes that "a central element in the judgement that a fair settlement is possible is the realization that each side's ideal solution is not attainable."[p. 66] The leaders must believe that the other side will be willing to negotiate, and that any distrust between the sides can be overcome.
These psychological factors can present a greater obstacle to negotiation than the substantive factors. Finally they must decide that it is possible to settle their dispute fairly given the balance of power between the parties. When the balance of power is very unequal it may not be possible for the parties to negotiate a fair outcome.
Once the parties commit to negotiating, the final pre-negotiation step is to arrange for those negotiations to be held. Deciding on these arrangements may itself amount to a mini- negotiation. The parties must "define the objective of the negotiation in a way that provides agreement on the principles that will guide drafting of a settlement."[p. 68] They must agree on a general strategy for the negotiations. The parties must also make physical arrangements for negotiations, such as setting a time and a location, identifying participants, or even deciding who will sit where. These physical arrangements can be politically sensitive.