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Successful Negotiations? Make Sure You Set the Table

Wed, 04/25/2018

What truths can we uncover in the process that we can apply to more routine negotiations, whether in business or simply in life?

By Greg Lagana, Executive Vice President, MSL Washington D.C.

Political analysts along with anyone who has ever approached a negotiation table have watched for months to see whether Donald Trump’s bellicose statements toward North Korea and belittling of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would produce a meeting that could lead to the control of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Certainly, public diplomacy is a very important element of any negotiation—speeches, statements and rallying of public support can all serve to strengthen one side’s position or, when backed by real power, convince the other side to come to the table. But they can also serve to harden positions and make negotiations difficult if they embarrass or disrespect the other side.

What truths can we uncover in the process that we can apply to more routine negotiations, whether in business or simply in life?

In the Korea case, history will tell, and we should watch the public pronouncements and the military and political activities that touch on the relationship with the Koreas as the Trump-Kim summit draws near.

We know now that CIA Director (and Secretary of State-designate) Mike Pompeo met with Kim over Easter week. That meeting served a greater purpose than just to set the stage for the summit. He was there, in effect, to negotiate what was to be discussed. His conversation with Kim was essential to moving beyond public talk of negotiations to a potentially productive meeting where issues of real importance can be discussed or—if not resolved—put on a path toward resolution.

Now, as the meeting appears to be moving from an aspiration to a reality, we are seeing more jockeying. The North Koreans have given the impression that they have made an advance concession in the spirit of openness. But have they? Their standard strategy over the years has been to engage in behavior that is objectionable to the international community and then extract some kind of assistance or concession in exchange for ending that behavior and returning to the status quo ante. People talk about negotiations as if they are simply sessions where two parties come together and understand each other. The average person tends to think that it is always good to talk when two parties have disagreements. Negotiations are good. Talks are good. We even talk about “successful” negotiations. But in any negotiation, each side may have a different way of defining success.

More often than not, negotiations are a way two sides can resolve differences so that each side gets as much of what they want as possible. In negotiations among equals, an outcome in which each side gets about half of what it wants is probably to be expected. But much depends on the leverage and skill that each side brings to the table.

So what goes into a negotiation, and why don’t governments negotiate more often? Why do we have conflicts when we can have talks?  What can the average negotiator learn from this process?

Basically, four principal truths frame any negotiation process:

  1. Both sides must agree on what is to be negotiated. This may sound obvious, but often, calls for negotiation based naively on the value of talking omit this detail. Imagine that you have a dispute with your neighbor because his large oak tree is leaning precariously over your property. You want him to cut it down and, although you haven’t offered yet, you are even willing to share the cost. If your neighbor responds by saying that he wants you to paint your house a different color, get rid of your dog and keep your children in the house on weekends, you have nothing to negotiate. If your neighbor responds, “well, let’s just talk without preconditions,” he is luring you into a trap. People like to pretend that they are being open by offering to talk with no preconditions, but they are actually asserting the biggest precondition at all: that everything is on the table. Likewise, insurgent movements usually seek to engage the governments they are fighting in Negotiations without preconditions because they want to put political power on the table. But governments almost always refuse to negotiate power with insurgencies.
  2. Both sides must have something to gain from negotiating. This is why governments use tactics like embargoes, threats, military pressure, sanctions and public condemnations to bring wayward governments to heel. They increase the pressure to negotiate. In effect, a government can negotiate them away in exchange for whatever changes in other side’s behavior it wants. Imagine a labor union that wants higher wages and better benefits for its members. The company says no and refuses to negotiate, so the union calls a strike. It has just given the company something to gain by negotiating: an end to the strike and a resumption of production.
  3. No one negotiates for what he can get without negotiating. We are seeing this in Syria. Bashar Al-Assad has the upper hand. He has good reason to believe he is winning and that, in time, he and his Russian allies will have complete control of the country—or enough of it to have enormous leverage in any negotiation. So why would he negotiate now? And why would he risk his hold on power at the negotiating table? The answer is that he won’t, and the only chance of getting him to meaningful negotiations is to increase his costs so much that he decides he must give something up in order to reduce or eliminate those costs.
  4. What happens away from the negotiating table is more important than what happens at the table. Two parties go to the negotiating table with more than position papers, briefing books and arguments. They bring their political, economic, military, cultural and media power with them. These are all tools of diplomacy and negotiation. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no dichotomy between military and diplomatic solutions; military pressure is an essential tool of diplomacy, and diplomacy is often conducted on the back of the military action. So it is not unusual to see stepped-up military or economic pressure, or harsh public statements, while negotiations are being conducted. A state that doesn’t brandish it's economic, political or military power when necessary in negotiations is tying its own hands and, in effect, undermining its ability to meet its objectives.

Governments that are negotiating with a stronger power also have tools they can use. They can try to turn public opinion against their negotiating partner through solidarity groups and information or propaganda campaigns—or simply draw out the negotiations to create political fatigue and raise the other side’s costs. When North Korea announced that it was ending its nuclear and missile tests and closing their test site (experts say that they had concluded their tests and that their test site had come to the end of its useful life), they were probably attempting to put political pressure on the South Korean government and create some disarray among the main parties that will confer closely on any negotiations—the United States, South Korea, Japan and China.

Negotiations are a bit like synchronized swimming. They may look smooth and choreographed on the surface, and they may produce the desired outcome. But keep looking under the water and you will see a lot of kicking and a great deal of energy expended. That’s where the real action is taking place. And that’s where the more routine negotiator can invest time and resources in order to achieve a better result.


Greg Lagana is responsible for Qorvis MSL’s COP23 work for the Republic of Fiji.  Previously, he spent four years in the White House as a member of the Coalition Information Center staff and then as associate director of the Office of Global Communications.For more than two decades, Lagana served in the U.S. Foreign Service in public diplomacy, public affairs, political and administrative positions with the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Department of State. In his Foreign Service career, he had overseas assignments in Spain, El Salvador, Ecuador and Italy.

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