Multi - Party Negotiations

Part 1 of this article discusses the challenges imposed by multiple negotiators at the negotiation table.

Many business partnerships that are forged in today's increasingly specialized business milieu, often involves 3 or more partners who are co-joining into complex agreements. This bubbling stew pot of positions, needs, and ambitions requires dexterous handling of the right ingredients. This ambitious blend makes the difference between savouring a rich and inviting texture of tastes, or storming out the door in disgust. It's a delicate balancing act where everyone is jostling, both delicately and aggressively, on the same high wire act, and all at the same time. Making it work and run smoothly requires a level head and keen vision.

The first part of this article tackles the dark mix of problems we may encounter. The second part of the article brings some light, to guide us along the high road to manage our way through this maze.

What are the differences?

 When we have multiple people sitting at the table, there is greater potential for turbulence to seethe beneath the apparent calm. For one thing we will have more people jockeying and clamouring for attention. It can be a volatile mixture of mismatched representatives. Some negotiators may be acting as primary representatives, while others may be agents or third party negotiators who are acting on behalf of someone else, and may even have a separate and hidden agenda of their own.

We might have to brazen out the dilemma posed by the 'pecking order' conundrum. Some negotiators may have a high level of executive status, while others are lower down in the corporate food chain with lesser status. Status can have meaningful implications as the authority levels of the representatives might be mismatched. This could result in a power struggle that might tie up the various discussions, that interplay throughout the discussions and at different levels. It is a complex drama where the actors may ad-lib their lines throughout the entire play, with mixed results.

The Information Puzzle

When we have more parties at the table, we will also face a multi prism of issues, viewpoints and perspectives. Like a demented chef madly throwing their ingredients into the pot, let us also add a multiple myriad of facts and figures, projections, expert opinions, and extraneous analysis into this culinary brew. We should be quite pleased to find the resulting mix eatable, while secretly being happy it didn't explode in our face. This is simply a melodramatic way of saying that multiparty negotiations are complex and challenging, given all the factors we have to consider and keep in mind at all times.

The People Puzzle

During multiparty negotiations, we have to deal with a variety of agendas. We are no longer dealing with one-on-one discussions where there is usually some degree of ebb and flow. Now, the negotiators will be more challenged as they strive to achieve their individual objectives, while facing the pressing issues of staying cohesive and maintaining a unified direction.

Personalities may interact either melodiously, or abrasively. Negotiators may face a variety of tactics or even unethical gambits, as they evaluate and measure each other in pressing home their points. Conflicts will have to be overcome, as the group wrestles to achieve a uniform solution that is satisfactory, to not only the participants, but the constituents they represent as well.

The focus must always be on finding an effective agreement, a common vision that satisfies all their needs, in the best possible manner. The one caution that must be inserted here, is to be wary of making an agreement for an agreements sake. A weak or patched agreement is like threading your way through rush hour, wearing a blindfold and hoping for the best - it seldom works out very well.

Chaotic order or ordered chaos?

In the simple world of a two party negotiation, each party generally takes turns in their exchanges, as they proceed along the way. In a multiparty negotiation, finding order and process can be harder than finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. Who starts? Who does what next? Who determines the agenda? Since there are many differing issues, and of relative importance, we need a way to figure out how we will separate the wheat from the chaff, and visualize a common design. How do we establish order amongst this complex group, so that it doesn't result in some civilized form of a taproom brawl, minus the fisticuffs? This is especially blaring when we meet head-on with the hard nosed negotiator, or when faced with a highly dominant personality pressing to have their way, and to heck with the rest of the group.

There obviously needs to be a means to manage the process so that there is order in how things are performed. Otherwise, nothing could ever be accomplished. As many multiparty negotiations do succeed, we can safely be assured, there are means and tactics to address the potential dilemmas we might face in the preceding paragraphs described above.

Let the games begin

Needless to say, each negotiation representative may invoke their own strategy and tactics to achieve their objectives. The more players involved, the more the interplay of strategies become increasingly and even perilously complex. Each player also will be responding to the strategy and tactics of the other players at the negotiation table.

One of the challenges facing us in these thorny negotiations, is deciding how we will counter the differing strategies used by our counterparts. We may either deal with them on a one on one basis, or collectively as a group. We might be faced with hard bargaining issues while trying to find ways to develop creative solutions.

Attitudes could range from being confrontational and positional. This will sculpt their approach in whether they have the desire, or become reluctant to offer or consider concessions. All of this combined will affect the overall and ongoing dynamics of the interactions between the negotiators, both individually and collectively.

There is also the challenge where a negotiator might face the coalition(s) of two or more negotiators. So now we must also deal with the added stress and pressures of coping with the coalitions attempt to dominate our position. Or, they may contrive to force their own resolution of issues between themselves or, by making side agreements during a break in talks. Sometimes, these coalitions can force the group into complying with a common perspective, while trampling on our own views about an issue or agreement.

Summary

Multiparty negotiations add many levels of both challenges and complexities that are normally less prevalent in a two party negotiation. In part 1 of this 2 part article, we considered the types of challenges and problems we may encounter. Although these challenges can appear daunting, there are ways and means to address this myriad of problems. Part 2 will offer a variety of solutions to address these dilemmas.

  1. Harvard Business Essentials 'Negotiation' Harvard Business School Press, (2003).
  2. Max H. Bazerman, Margaret A. Neale, 'Negotiating Rationally', The Free Press - MacMillian, (1992).
  3. Leigh Thompson, 'The Heart and Mind of the Negotiator-2nd Edition', Prentice Hall Business Publishing, (2001).
  4. J. Lewicki, A. Litterer, W.Minton, M. Sauders, 'Negotiation', 2nd Edition, Irwin,(1994).

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9 of 9 people found the following comment useful:

Multi-party negotiations becoming more popular - 2008 May 4
Commentator: Dr Piotr Jednaszewski (Poland)

"As the author says, multiparty negotiations add many levels of both challenges and complexities... Managers don't always see the complexity of such negotiations as vital for success.
I have recently been participating in such types of negotiation, trying to give advance warning to the board of one party, presenting the complexity and different levels of interests of the other party. Hence they were able to move from hardly believing in such a situation into realizing that such a spectrum faced them in their negotiations. "

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