New Strategies for Your Multiparty Negotiation Toolkit

Try novel tactics that contributed to a groundbreaking deal at the U.N. Climate Change Conference.

By on / Dealmaking

“Confessionals.” “Informal informals.” “Indabas.” Delegates from the 196 nations participating in the U.N. Climate Change Conference, held in Paris at the end of 2015, cycled through an eclectic variety of negotiating formats in their race to make binding commitments to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. According to media reports, the participants’ willingness to shake up the complex multiparty negotiations with new tactics was crucial to their ability to forge an agreement that was not only unanimous but also more ambitious than originally envisioned.

In our March cover story, we reviewed the steps that conference organizers and leaders took to lay the groundwork for a successful negotiation, such as steering the process of creating a draft agreement and designing a comfortable and welcoming negotiating environment. Here we describe the specific strategies the negotiators followed to ensure that all voices were heard—strategies that may prove useful the next time you are involved in a difficult multiparty negotiation.

  1. The confessional.

Aware that the delegates would be working around the clock and facing enormous stress, the French government hosts went to great lengths to attend to their needs, from serving haute cuisine to setting up meditation and relaxation rooms, as we noted in last month’s issue. Along these lines, the hosts also introduced a series of “confessionals”—confidential talks where delegates could “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, as one delegate told the Guardian. The delegates were promised that whatever they said in a confessional would remain private, a rule that allowed them to open up about and begin to work through their frustrations and concerns.

In business disputes, professional mediators often end up serving as confidants to one or both sides. In a large multiparty negotiation that is expected to be tense, organizers might try to help participants manage their stress levels and reflect more deeply on their positions by having a mediator or even a psychologist available for them to meet with in confidence.

  1. The informal informal.

In Paris, as in many United Nations negotiations, the delegates’ main task was to resolve contested passages in the so-called negotiating text—a working document that had been created and edited with input from virtually all the participants in the nine months leading up to the conference. At the start of the Paris talks, the negotiating text was littered with bracketed sections that needed to be discussed and resolved. For example, “should,” “must,” or “may” wealthy nations commit to delivering financial assistance to nations affected by natural disasters caused by climate change?

Small groups of delegates from various countries were charged with resolving chunks of disputed text, often just a single paragraph, according to the Guardian. Their meetings were known in the United Nations’ quirky lingo as “informal informals.” Befitting their name, informal informals were often impromptu huddles in the hallways of the conference center. After agreeing on a piece of bracketed text, the group would pass it along for approval in a meeting of delegates from each nation.

In multiparty negotiations, a unanimous or near-unanimous agreement is often more stable and lasting than an agreement achieved through majority rule. Yet the process needed to secure a consensus can seem daunting. Business negotiators might consider the U.N.’s process of tasking small groups representing various factions with resolving detailed matters. The consensus achieved in small groups can build goodwill that may spill over when their work is brought to the broader group.

  1. The indaba.

Likely the most unique negotiating technique employed at the Paris conference was the indaba, a meeting style of the Xhosa and Zulu people of South Africa. In a traditional indaba (the word means “business” or “matter” in Zulu), male elders and other leaders gather to try to negotiate common ground on a problem that affects the community. Although only the leaders have decision-making power, all in the community are invited to attend the indaba and share their views, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. By giving everyone a voice, indabas are said to break through impasse and promote consensus building.

South African negotiators first introduced indabas at a 2011 climate-change summit their nation hosted. In Paris, indabas gained a higher profile. During the conference’s final week, as negotiators worked furiously to resolve their differences, the organizers held indabas in large rooms, setting up 80 seats reserved for government ministers, according to the Herald. In some cases, the indabas ran all night, from midnight until 8:00 a.m., with fresher negotiators taking over for exhausted ones, until a final agreement was reached on December 12.

At the indabas, each country was invited to air its “redline positions,” or must-haves, whether that meant simply restating entrenched positions (as most did) or unveiling a new or compromise position. At one point, the energy minister of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, James Fletcher, said his nation would only accept an agreement that stipulated global warming be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the more conservative 2-degree target that delegates had centered on throughout the talks, the Herald reports. Over the course of the conference, poorer nations believed to be most threatened by future environmental disasters had pushed for the tougher target. The below 1.5 degrees goal ultimately made it into the final resolution, suggesting that smaller nations gained a stronger voice in the indabas.

In your own multiparty negotiations, you may find great value in pausing back-and-forth negotiations to hold an indaba-style meeting. The process may allow new perspectives to enter the conversation and inspire the type of breakthrough you’ve been seeking.

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