International Negotiations and Agenda Setting: Controlling the Flow of the Negotiation Process

Agenda setting for productive international negotiations

By — on / International Negotiation


When two groups are embroiled in a conflict, it is common for the party with less power to have difficulty convincing the more powerful party to sit down at the negotiating table in negotiations. In such cases, the more powerful player is likely to resist the notion of shaking up the status quo—and thus avoid negotiating altogether. They have an agenda.

This tendency can be a particular problem in international negotiation, particularly those involving a protracted conflict.

Power in Negotiations

In a past negotiation research study, Nour Kteily of Northwestern University and his colleagues found that low-power groups can influence powerful parties to engage with them through their framing of the proposed negotiating agenda. Specifically, across four experiments, participants in the high-power position were more willing to negotiate when a low-power group proposed negotiating less important issues before more significant areas of disagreement, rather than vice versa. This preference is the opposite of what low-power parties prefer, the researchers learned.

Negotiation Example: Israel and Palestine – When to Discuss What Issues

In one of the experiments, Palestinian participants living in the West Bank and Jewish-Israeli participants both judged Israelis to be the more powerful party in their relationship. When presented with a hypothetical negotiating agenda from a delegation of the other group, Palestinians were more willing to negotiate when the Israeli side suggested discussing the most significant and difficult issues first. Israelis, by contrast, were more open to negotiation when the agenda proposed began with less contentious issues.

In the experiments, low-power disputants understood an agenda that opened with easier issues as an attempt by a more powerful would-be counterpart to stall change. By contrast, high-power disputants were threatened by proposed agendas that suggested less powerful parties would try to alter the status quo right from the start.

Thus, to bring powerful negotiating groups to the bargaining table, you might propose an agenda that starts with minor issues. When negotiations begin, however, you would be wise to incorporate discussion of more consequential problems, to the extent possible, as a means of finding tradeoffs among the full range of topics.

Negotiation Research article about Negotiating Power: “Negotiating Power: Agenda Ordering and the Willingness to Negotiate in Asymmetric Intergroup Conflicts,” by Nour Kteily, Tamar Saguy, James Sidanius, and Donald M. Taylor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013.

How do you control the flow of negotiations? Let us know in the comments.

Adapted from “Bringing Powerful Parties to the Table,” first published in the November 2013 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.

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