Get Ready for Team Talks

By — on / Daily, Mediation

Adapted from “Strength in Numbers: Negotiating as a Team,” by Elizabeth A. Mannix (professor, Cornell University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, May 2005.

The widespread belief in “strength in numbers” suggests that having more players on your team should be a benefit, not a burden. But this belief can lead team members to underprepare for negotiation, a common mistake. Think about the times during a negotiation when you wished you could retract a concession or bit of information that slipped out of a teammate’s mouth.

Before entering into the negotiation, the team must agree on the basics of the negotiation substance, striving for complete unity. After all, at the first sign of cracks in your armor, the other side will try to divide and conquer.

Imagine an American couple in Fez, Morocco, browsing in a shop at the medina that is piled high with colorful, luxurious rugs in all shapes and sizes. They choose a few rugs and brace themselves for what is sure to be a fairly tough negotiation. After all, the rug seller has been haggling day in and day out for years. If the wife likes a particular rug more than her husband does, she may agree to a price before he’s ready. Is it possible to take back that “unwanted concession”? Of course not! The rug seller has made a deal, and the couple has bought a rug—and perhaps an argument on the way out of the shop.

Such missteps are always a hazard in group negotiation. For this reason, you should begin your preparatory meeting by brainstorming a list of issues that you would like to discuss in the negotiation—rug size, quality, price, and shipping, for example. Next, prioritize the issues and consider potential tradeoffs. The couple may figure out they’re willing to pay a bit more for a high-quality rug if shipping isn’t a hassle.

How can the issues be packaged? At this point, it’s time to agree on your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement); your reservation point, or the worst outcome you will agree to; and your aspiration level, or the best outcome you can imagine. The team can use these critical limits to discover alternative scenarios, search for disconfirming information, and test its assumptions. For example, the couple in Morocco may realize that their BATNA could be to wait to buy a rug during a planned trip to Turkey. This alternative might lead to an entirely different search, thus raising their aspiration level for a Moroccan purchase.

Now it’s time to consider the other side. What information do you have about them? Generate a list of the issues they are likely to find most critical, and do your best to estimate their priorities, BATNAs, reservation point, and aspiration level. This is where a team can be extremely helpful; be sure to explore your full range of knowledge and expertise. Next, make a list of information that you wished you knew. You may be able to find some answers before the actual negotiation, or else seek them out during talks.

Finally, agree on the information your team is willing to reveal to the other side and the information that must never be revealed. For example, suppose that Pauline’s biotech firm is considering an alliance with another firm. At what point should this be revealed during the negotiation, if at all? Remember, you can’t take anything back once it’s been spoken. Make sure that everyone is on the same page before the negotiation begins.

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