In Business Negotiations, Set the Stage for Success

Through intensive planning, the organizers of the Paris climate-change talks streamlined a massively complex negotiation.

By — on / Business Negotiations

In negotiation, it’s said, preparation is key. Without careful research and logistical planning, we may be left trying to skate by on wits and charm alone—and in today’s business world, they will seldom carry us far.

Advance work is especially critical when you expect your talks to be complex, involving numerous issues, multiple parties, and plenty of disagreement. The organizers of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which was held in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget from November 30 through December 11, 2015, faced these challenges and more. The ambitious goal of the conference was to negotiate enforceable commitments from all the world’s nations to lower greenhouse-gas emissions to levels that could ward off environmental disasters.

Ultimately, the negotiators did reach an agreement that met their stated goals. Scientists who have analyzed the national commitments made in the agreement do not believe that, collectively, they are sufficient to lower emissions to a level that will stave off future environmental disasters. However, the deal could jump-start a global decline in carbon emissions and motivate greater investments in alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power. The agreement also requires countries to reconvene every five years, starting in 2023, and update their commitments to addressing climate change.

In this article, we look at how the organizers and lead negotiators of the Paris conference worked hard to try to avoid the mistakes of the last major climate-change summit. That conference, held in Copenhagen in 2009, failed to lay the necessary groundwork to help negotiators overcome their deep divides. Business negotiators facing complex talks can learn from the work of the Paris organizers to create a harmonious and collaborative environment right from the start.

Attention to detail

In 2014, launching its preparations for the Paris talks, the French government appointed Laurence Tubiana, an Algerian-born political scientist who had worked at the World Bank, as the nation’s senior climate envoy and gave her virtual carte blanche to ensure a successful conference.

France was determined to avoid the fate of Denmark, which had been widely blamed for the failed Copenhagen talks. The hosts were “excoriated as rigid, secretive, and uncreative,” reports Coral Davenport in the New York Times, and a mood of “confrontational brinksmanship” at the 2009 conference was worsened by long security lines out in the cold and bad food.

In the 18 months leading up to the summit, Tubiana personally traveled the world, negotiating for behind-the-scenes support for the conference and its mission from fellow diplomats and academics. She also instructed France’s elegant embassies to hold regular dinners and salons for key players on climate policy, including business leaders, lawmakers, and journalists. Her goal: to instill both urgency and optimism in delegates so that they could negotiate a meaningful climate agreement in Paris.

Tubiana was just as detail-oriented when setting the scene for the climate conference. With typical French flair, she had each work space in the airplane hangars and tents where the talks were held softened by “a gracefully curved table lamp, casting a gentle glow,” according to Davenport. An on-site bakery was constructed to churn out warm baguettes and croissants, the Financial Times reports, and at mealtimes the delegates were further softened up with sumptuous French cuisine, including duck confit and boeuf bourguignon accompanied by local wine. When they needed a break from marathon bargaining sessions, negotiators could nap in relaxation rooms and clear their minds in meditation rooms. In a nod to the conference’s purpose, delegates also could take complimentary electric car rides to their hotels.

In negotiation, we tend to overlook the importance of our environment’s effect on our moods and behavior. Even when we’re working on a tight budget, we can make small but significant changes to promote calm and collegial bargaining, such as replacing overhead fluorescents with warmer lighting or serving food that represents your city or region. Simply offering negotiators cushioned chairs rather than hard ones can promote concession making, Joshua M. Ackerman (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Christopher C. Nocera (Harvard University), and John A. Bargh (Yale University) have found in their research. Holding preliminary meetings or dinners with members of various negotiating teams, as Tubiana did at French embassies, is another move that can build goodwill.

Brokers, not advocates

Tubiana may have been the host of the Paris talks, but she needed to avoid giving the appearance that the French were guiding the content of the negotiations, as the Denmark hosts had been accused of doing in 2009.

The task of leading the delegates toward an agreement was the job of the conference’s cochairs, Daniel Reifsnyder, from the U.S. Department of State, and Ahmed Djoghlaf, an Algerian ambassador. Why two chairs instead of one? Disagreements between developing nations and developed nations were so deep that a single leader from one faction inevitably would be distrusted by the other. Consequently, Reifsnyder was chosen to represent the developed world and Djoghlaf, the developing world.

Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf met at the world’s earliest climate talks, about 25 years ago, and share an easy rapport honed over years of negotiating side by side, Nell Greenfieldboyce reports for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. They also have complementary strengths: Reifsnyder is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the issues, while Djoghlaf is the “quintessential diplomat,” according to Reifsnyder, “extremely gifted and smooth with people.”

In Copenhagen, world leaders attempted to personally negotiate a climate accord, an inherently “flawed concept,” senior European Union delegate Elina Bardram told the Financial Times. In Paris, the chief negotiators would be environmental ministers and officials well versed in climate issues, a change designed to reduce public posturing and ensure that talks would remain focused on the details. The delegates were told to deliver a national climate plan for their countries by the start of the Paris conference, another change intended to avoid the failures of Copenhagen.

Speaking to NPR, Reifsnyder compared his and his partner’s job to “taking 196 cats and trying to get them to all move in the same direction.” During this painstaking herding, he and Djoghlaf were able to “rise above” the groups they represented, Reifsnyder said: “You cease to become an advocate. You become a broker.”

When facing complex, contentious negotiations, parties often assign their lawyers or a professional mediator to lead the process. Though these can be wise choices, the Paris talks suggest another possibility: Have each side choose a representative with a proven track record for evenhandedness and collaboration, then have these representatives lead the negotiating process together. Ideally, they will model a cooperative spirit that rubs off on others at the table.

Another option is to bring in a trained meeting facilitator. Facilitators can bring tremendous value to the negotiating table, writes Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind in his book Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiation (PublicAffairs, 2014). Facilitators typically help parties set an agenda and ground rules, coordinate the flow of conversation and information, ensure that parties adhere to the agreed-upon rules, manage conflict, and assist in drafting the final outcomes.

Getting on the same page

In February 2015, nearly a year before the start of the Paris conference, Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf—the de facto facilitators—convened climate-change delegates in Geneva to create the first draft of a so-called negotiating text. The negotiating text, the focus of climate-change summits, is crafted by all participating nations. “To build trust and goodwill,” according to Greenfieldboyce, delegates “could throw in any proposed text they wanted” in Geneva.

Contributing to the negotiating text helps parties feel they are being heard and launches them on a journey toward a final draft. On the downside, early drafts of such texts are typically disorganized and full of contradictions. In climate negotiations, brackets are put around text that has not been agreed upon. Brackets littered the 90 pages of the first draft of the Paris text.

Envisioning a trim final agreement of 15 pages, Djoghlaf and Reifsnyder held another round of meetings in June, this time in Bonn, Germany, to make cuts. The process was painstaking, with negotiators debating critical language choices, such as whether a country “shall” or “may” make certain commitments. The group managed to cut only five pages, but the meetings built trust in Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf, whom the representatives entrusted to cut additional text on their own.

In October, the cochairs released a newly svelte 20-page draft that many observers praised for prioritizing key issues. Reconvening in Bonn, delegates voted that the negotiating text was “balanced” and had “full ownership by the governments of the world” as a starting point for the Paris talks. Further buoying optimism, the majority of the nations present introduced national climate plans, many of them highly comprehensive. By the time talks convened in Paris, all but 12 of the 196 participating countries had submitted their own climate plans.

Draft agreements are a commonly used tool in high-stakes government and corporate negotiations, writes Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse in his book Negotiating Life: Secrets for Everyday Diplomacy and Deal Making (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Whether you prepare your own draft to present to a counterpart as a basis for negotiation or collaborate with a counterpart on a draft, the process can help you identify all the relevant issues as well as points of contention and agreement. When negotiators work together on a draft agreement, they literally get on the same page from the start. In many instances, this collaborative process can improve their odds of finding common ground as compared with simply exchanging a series of proposals across the table.

Optimism and urgency

All this advance work—choosing the right leaders, winning support from key players, setting a hospitable environment, and negotiating a draft agreement—didn’t guarantee successful negotiations in Paris. Delegates came to France divided on significant issues, such as whether the agreement would be legally binding and how to share the financial burden of addressing climate change. In a future issue, we will take a closer look at how these conflicts were addressed.

But in the early days of the Paris talks, the highly orchestrated planning did succeed in fostering an “optimistic and collegial mood,” according to the New York Times. When the conference began on November 30, the delegates knew they were already well beyond the starting point of past climate talks. They trusted France’s deep commitment to forging a deal. They largely respected the cochairs’ abilities and hard work to date. And with Paris still reeling from the very recent terrorist attacks—events that none of the organizers could have anticipated—the delegates arrived with a deeper sense of urgency and purpose. As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius reminded them in an emotional speech at the conference, “We’re talking about life itself.”

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