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Same page negotiations

Published: Feb 05 , 2018
Author: Robin Copland

Most negotiations are more complex than they appear.  Even although, on the face of it, party A, the seller (as an example) is meeting party B (the buyer) in a simple transactional negotiation in which, hopefully, differences can be ironed out and traded away so that a deal is done, the truth of the matter is that it is much more complicated than that. 

The seller has a constituency that they have to worry about and questions that they have to be able to answer internally

  • Did I get enough in return for any movement from my opening position?
  • Does the deal contribute to the achievement of my personal objectives?
  • Does the deal help my business achieve its overall business targets?
  • Can the commitments I have promised (delivery schedules, marketing support and the like) be honoured in the fulfilment of the agreement?

And then for the buyer, they are often buying on behalf of internal customers with their own needs, aspirations and requirements.  Does the deal work not only from their own personal perspective but from the wider angle of the other stakeholders as well?

Even though there are these extra layers of complexity though, those kinds of deals remain at the simpler end of the negotiating spectrum.  What about the scenario when there are more than two people taking part in the negotiation?  What about, for example, the Northern Ireland peace talks that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement?  There you had different political parties in the UK, in Ireland and then, just to complicate matters further, in Northern Ireland.  Add to that mix various other “interested” parties ranging from business groupings, para-military organisations, the political wings of said para-military organisations, organised religions (the Roman Catholic church might have been construed as having an all-Ireland affiliation because of its close links with the country of Ireland, whilst the various Protestant churches were more pro-unionist) and three independent mediators, one each appointed by Ireland and the UK, and a third appointed by the then president of the USA, Bill Clinton.

In these tortuous negotiations, there were the head-to-head headline meetings between the leaders, but then there were also informal meetings between the broad coalitions on either side where deals were done and details thrashed out.  “If you, party A, keep quiet about issue b (a complete embarrassment to most on our side, but which is nonetheless important to party A) and if we get an agreement that covers issues c, d and e, then we will ensure that your voice is heard on issues f, g and h”.

Why were all these meetings and side agreements so necessary?   There is nothing that can damage a negotiation more than one of your allies “going rogue”.  It’s like a hostage negotiation reaching a crucial point where deals can be done and the lives of innocents saved.  Just at the crucial time, some junior tank commander decides to drive their tank onto the lawn to “show everyone who’s the boss” and the whole deal comes tumbling down.

Discipline is the key.  In complicated negotiations, everyone on your team needs to be reading from the same script.  That means no blurting of personal opinions; no raising of past transgressions/ conflict; no barbed comments; no press briefings by “sources close to the negotiating team”.

In short, these negotiations need to be conducted from the same page in a disciplined manner.  The great dealmaker himself might want to learn a hard-earned lesson or two from those who perhaps know better.


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Robin Copland
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