Negotiation Skills and Strategies: Winning Over Reluctant Counterparts

Effective negotiation skills and strategies are needed to win over those reluctant to reach agreement. Failed negotiations to pass gun-control legislation in 2013 highlight challenges and opportunities.

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White House Negotiation Skills and Strategies

In the aftermath of the December 2012 killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, then-president Barack Obama moved gun control to the top of his legislative agenda. By April 2013, the Senate was considering requiring universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases and banning assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines. Despite having the support of 90% of Americans, the measures failed to attract the 60 votes needed in the Senate. The defeat highlighted the following three negotiation skills and strategies for winning over reluctant counterparts.

1. Get Your Own House in Order

In 2013, powerful factions on both sides of the gun-control issue lobbied hard for and against the bill. The National Rifle Association pressured Republicans and moderate Democrats to vote against any new restrictions on guns. Meanwhile, Obama flanked himself with victims of gun violence, including former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in public appearances and sent them to lobby members of the Senate.

In their negotiations, Democratic senator Chuck Schumer and Republican senator Tom Coburn, the original cosponsors of the bill, clashed on the issue of whether the government should create records of gun sales that did not involve gun stores. Schumer and other gun-control advocates argued that the records were needed for effective background checks, but Coburn, facing pressure from gun-rights groups, balked, saying he feared the creation of a national gun registry, according to the New York Times.

Schumer and the White House considered dropping the record-keeping component of the bill but backed down in the face of opposition from gun-control groups. Ultimately, many senators who voted against the bill cited the record-keeping measure as their primary objection.

In negotiation, discussions among parties on the same side can exert at least as much influence as the talks that happen across the table can. That’s why your toolbox of negotiation skills and strategies should put heavy emphasis on internal discussions and negotiations. Both before external negotiations and throughout the process, assess whether others on your negotiation team agree with your priorities; if not, try to negotiate a compromise.

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2. Induce Compliance with Carrots and Sticks

In March 2013, Alaska Democratic senator Mark Begich asked Obama for a favor: Send the new interior secretary, Sally Jewell, to discuss a dispute over the construction of a road in a wildlife refuge, the Times reports. Begich wanted to show his constituents that he was pressuring the government to approve the road. Obama agreed. Four weeks later, despite Obama’s pleas, Begich, who is running for reelection this year, voted against the gun bill. Yet Jewell’s trip to Alaska was still on. Obama had missed a clear opportunity to use the Jewell visit as leverage in his gun-control negotiations with Begich.

Unlike some past presidents, Obama “rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers,” write Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker in the Times. To get his way as president, Obama instead relied primarily on reasoned discussions.

This negotiating strategy was somewhat effective during his early years in office, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, but required adjustment after Republicans took control of the House. Yet rather than changing how he dealt with his opposition, the president switched from an “inside” approach—centered on backroom policy discussions with lawmakers—to an “outside” approach aimed at putting pressure on Congress through campaign-style rallies, according to his aides.

To pass significant initiatives, Obama might have imposed consequences on those who crossed him—in Begich’s case, for example, by canceling Jewell’s Alaska trip. The former president’s gun-bill failure serves as a reminder that negotiators have many negotiation skills and strategies at their disposal. Threats, coercion, punishment, and rewards all have their time and place.

3. Avoid Competing Negotiations

According to Joe Biden, vice president in 2013, several senators from conservative states told him they felt they had to choose between supporting the gun-control bill or a pending bill on immigration reform. Their constituents, they claimed, would turn on them if they reversed their previous course on both issues. That may explain why some senators waffled until the final days before the gun-control vote: They wanted to support it but backed down for fear of the reaction at home.

Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, Obama took the risk of bumping gun control ahead of immigration as the political cause of the moment. In doing so, he put conservative senators who wanted to support both bills in a difficult political situation. (A 2013 bipartisan Senate immigration bill died in the House of Representatives.)

The story reminds us of the importance of carefully juggling initiatives in government negotiations and beyond. In your own negotiations, factor in the possibility that your counterparts’ attention and allegiance may be divided when they are facing multiple deal-making opportunities. Your negotiation skills and strategies should clarify which priorities you would like the other side to support and avoid trying to spread those priorities too thin. 

What negotiation skills and strategies have you found to be effective at persuading a reluctant counterpart?

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