The art of negotiation: what you can do to break the deadlock

By David Donaldson

Tuesday February 25, 2020

AP/Bebeto Matthews

Being a good negotiator is about more than just playing tough or acting nice. Know the other side, focus on underlying interests — and get creative.

Whether in budget allocations, policy formation, procurement, public-private partnerships, or inter-governmental relations, negotiation is an important skill in the public sector.

Done well, negotiation can save the taxpayer millions of dollars. It can create new possibilities for solving big problems. Or it can just help resolve a disagreement with your partner about what to have for dinner.

Yet attaining a satisfactory outcome can be difficult. Drawn out debates can be time-consuming and stressful. Reaching agreement between public institutions, where everyone is theoretically working towards the same thing — public value — is hard enough on its own let alone when dealing with the very different beast that is the private sector.

The good news is that preparation, creativity, and an awareness of how negotiations work can be useful in getting good results.

The pie

The nature of the negotiation has a big influence on what’s possible — although it’s sometimes possible to alter the circumstances.

The academic literature divides negotiated agreements up into two categories: what are known as ‘distributive’ (or competitive) outcomes, and ‘integrative’ (or collaborative) outcomes.

Distributive agreements divide up the pie, so one side’s gain is the other’s loss; integrative ones grow the pie, enabling both sides to benefit.

This is an important distinction because dividing up a fixed amount of resources increases the likelihood of conflict, whereas a collaborative outcome can create new possibilities for a win-win situation, making it more likely both will walk away feeling satisfied.

Taking the integrative approach means moving from existing options to creating new alternatives, reframing the process towards the potential for mutual gain. This can be a useful way of sidestepping an impasse.

In situations where several issues are under consideration and parties have differing priorities, a useful strategy can be what’s known as ‘log-rolling’: “concessions on low priority issues in exchange for gains on higher priority issues.” One study found this approach can lead to benefits for both parties.


Creativity plays a big role in finding these new possibilities, enabling the creation of options for mutual gain.

Kandarp Mehta, of Spain’s IESE Business School, argues creativity is a key skill in reaching outcomes everyone is satisfied with:

“The successful outcome of a negotiation depends as much on the creativity of the participants’ offers and counteroffers as it does on their relative positions of bargaining power. When creativity is lacking in a negotiation, results tend to be disappointing.”

A lack of trust between negotiators is a frequent hindrance to creativity and a reason for deadlock — although finding points of commonality can help build trust.

“Lack of trust prevents negotiators from taking a broader view of the other side; instead, they cling to their own deeply held assumptions,” says Mehta.

“This leads negotiators to bargain hard on one particular variable — usually price — which may lead to a deadlock or even a complete breakdown in negotiations.”

He offers five strategies for a more creative, dynamic approach to negotiation:

  1. Do your homework. Entering a negotiation without adequate preparation is a common mistake. Ensure you have a clearly defined outcome you are seeking in the process. Knowing both your target and minimum acceptable goal will help set the parameters. It’s also important to know your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, as sometimes it may be better to walk away than reach an agreement.
  2. Listen carefully to the other side. It sounds obvious, but often people focus too heavily on their own position and don’t fully process what’s happening in the negotiation. Active listening helps you understand what your counterpart’s motives and interests are, beyond the words coming out of their mouth. “By actively listening to the other party, a negotiator may stumble upon a bargaining chip that can unite both parties, raising the prospects of a more creative outcome,” writes Mehta.
  3. Incorporate what you have learned in your offers. This means acting upon the information gathered through listening.
  4. Overcome institutional resistance: find common ground. Bringing two organisations together is difficult, even if the negotiators themselves have a good relationship. This is where authorisation can be useful — signals from senior levels of both organisations of the intention to find a solution can help deal with the mire of nailing down all the details, or institutional resistance.
  5. Bundle your objectives. The more issues are on the table, the greater the opportunity to come up with a creative solution by trading off points of varying priority to each party.

“The best strategy is to prepare well, listen well and incorporate the information received during the negotiation. As the writer Henry Boyle once said, “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway”, advises Mehta.

Know the other side

Putting effort into understanding your counterpart and their position will help you understand what they are trying to get out of the process.

And just as it’s important to know your best alternative to no agreement, consider what the other side’s might be too. It can be useful to keep this in mind — or possibly even raise it — if the ‘take it or leave it’ approach is used.

“The ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as it may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess,” argue William Fisher and Roger Ury, authors of the best-seller Getting to Yes.

Really grasping their point of view will help you see how you can achieve your own aims while meeting their needs — and might even reshape your own goals, strengthening them in the process.

Remember that private sector organisations not only have different objectives in a negotiation, but tend to have different cultures and perspectives to the public sector.

READ MORE: Better digital services could boost public trust — but where to start?

The mindsets of the parties matter. Those who take a cooperative approach tend to foster mutually beneficial agreements, while negotiators with a competitive mindset work to dominate the other side and get the best result for their own team. If both approach the matter with a cooperative mindset, agreement is more likely than if both are competitive; if one is cooperative and the other competitive, the cooperative party may end up losing out.

Research suggests public service motivation means public servants probably tend to approach negotiations more cooperatively.

Focusing on win-win solutions can be helpful in building relationships, laying the foundation for future cooperation — so if you’re going to have to work together in future, avoid tactics that might be seen as bullying or manipulative, but also consider what lower priority goals might be worth ‘log-rolling’ to enable potential future gains.

The cooperative approach also tends to generate less conflict. Circumstances can, however, push parties into conflict and competition where it is difficult to escape zero-sum outcomes — for example if resources are constrained or the parties have strongly differing perceptions of the problem.

Focus on underlying interests

Don’t forget that the point of negotiations is not to reach an agreement per se, but to attain a better position than your best alternative to no agreement, argue Fisher and Ury.

Know your own interests, consider how they fit with those of the other team, and don’t play games, they say:

“The more extreme the opening positions and the smaller the concessions, the more time and effort it will take to discover whether or not agreement is possible.”

Fisher and Ury also tell negotiators they should aim to be neither aggressive nor nice, but take the approach of “principled negotiation”. This is encapsulated in four principles:

  1. Separate people’s problems from the issues. In the frustration of a difficult negotiation, strong emotions and differences in personality can come to the surface, but it’s important to confront heightened emotions through active listening and other communication techniques. Be empathetic, try to understand where they are coming from, and address their concerns where possible. Finding personal points of commonality can help — as can negotiating over food, apparently.
  2. Focus on underlying interests, not stated positions. Don’t become fixated on the specifics of each negotiator’s position — thinking about what’s underneath particular positions can allow creativity in proposing a new way forward. For a given interest there are usually several possible solutions. Stressing your shared interests can make the process easier and more friendly.
  3. Generate options for mutual gain. Instead of trying to reach agreement as quickly as possible, brainstorm possible options that will enhance outcomes for both parties. Expand the pie if you can.
  4. Insist on objective criteria for measuring outcomes. Evaluating the facts under debate is difficult unless both sides agree on a fair, independent standard. Parties should agree in advance which set of standards will be used.

If your opponent refuses to engage properly, you can use what Fisher and Ury call ‘negotiational jujitsu’, named after the martial art based on deflecting direct attacks. So instead of attacking their position, look for ways to improve it; ask questions, such as how they think their offer addresses the problem at hand, or ask them to explain what is wrong with your position; or recast an attack on you as an attack on the problem.

If they make a move that seems unreasonable, silence can sometimes be a useful tactic, as it opens up an uncomfortable pause in proceedings.

And in the case of dirty tricks, it is important to first recognise these yourself so they can be ignored. If repeated, it may be worth explicitly raising this with the person, or even opening up negotiation about how the negotiation should be conducted.

So stay focused on what underlying interests you are trying to address through the negotiation, and always look for ways of expanding the possibilities.

“Having thought about your interests, you should go into a meeting not only with one or more specific options that would meet your legitimate interests but also with an open mind,” write Fisher and Ury.

“An open mind is not an empty one.”

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