Anticipating Coalitional Behavior

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Adapted from “Winning and Blocking Coalitions” by Lawrence Susskind
Negotiation, January 2004

Once a multiparty negotiation gets off the ground, it’s crucial to build a winning coalition.

In the early days of his tenure, a chairman spends too much time reviewing the details of his proposed policy with his staff and not enough time sounding out council members to drum up support for his reforms.

The chairman’s missteps lead us to the first rule of coalition building: think carefully about how and when to meet one-on-one with other parties.

As you talk with each potential coalition member, you may be asked to make tentative commitments before you know what other possible partners might emerge.

Before tying yourself down, ask yourself some key questions:
• How will we divide up whatever value we create in the negotiation?
• Should I really commit to a “pretty good” split before hearing what others have to offer?

At this stage, your goal should be to collect relatively firm commitments from potential coalition partners while retaining the flexibility to switch allegiances. In the absence of clear ground rules, this can be a delicate process, but the results are well worth the effort.

The perils of coalition building played out on a global scale in mid-2003. Facing an important round of World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, the U.S. government approached the European Union and a handful of its other usual partners from the developed world.

Together, this informal coalition hammered out a preliminary agreement on issues from the meeting’s agenda, such as agricultural subsidies in wealthy nations. Noticeably absent from these preconference talks were members of the G22, the coalition of developing nations.

Once the WTO talks were underway, it quickly became apparent that the developed nations had made a crucial miscalculation in excluding the developing world from their coalition.

The G22 wanted a strong commitment from developed nations to reduce farm subsidies. The wealthy nations were not prepared to make a deal, and the developing world was insulted by the developed world’s failure to take its concerns seriously. Talks broke down, and all sides walked away empty-handed.

The lesson for multiparty negotiators: choose your coalition members wisely!

Learn social facilitation techniques for hiring a facilitator, taking care of workplace disputes, anticipating group faultiness and choosing the right decision rule when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Meeting Facilitation Skills: 4 Structured Facilitation Tips, today from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Related Article: The Benefits of Coalition Building

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