Diplomatic Negotiations: The Surprising Benefits of Conflict and Teamwork at the Negotiation Table

Coalitions and cooperation have tangible benefits for negotiators engaged in diplomatic negotiations

By — on / International Negotiation

diplomatic negotiations

Let’s take a look back at the 2008 US presidential election and the win-win coalition forged between Barack Obama and his then-rival, Hillary Clinton. As this example demonstrates, if carefully managed, disagreements and diplomatic negotiations can lead to better results than you might expect.

In December 2008, incoming U.S. president Barack Obama created a stir by appointing Senator Hillary Clinton, his bitter opponent for the Democratic nomination, to be US Secretary of State. Could Obama expect loyalty from someone he had traded barbs with for months? Would the risky choice be vindicated, or would it backfire?

Some compared Obama’s choice to Abraham Lincoln’s decision, following his hard-fought election in 1860, to appoint all three of his rivals for the Republican nomination to his cabinet. In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Doris Kearns Goodwin maintains that Lincoln was largely able to inspire his former opponents to overcome their differences and rally around him. But in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, historian James Oakes argues that Lincoln was a successful president despite the “contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas” in his cabinet, not because of them.

In the realm of negotiation, the question as to whether rivalries and differences of opinion harm or help teams is a critical one. Here we examine what negotiation research reveals about team harmony and cohesion and creating more diplomatic negotiations.

Negotiating Skills and Tactics for Diplomatic Negotiations

The pros and cons of teamwork

When a negotiation is a complex one that requires a broad set of knowledge, skills, and experience, gathering a team can be a smarter choice than trying to go it alone, according to professor Elizabeth Mannix of Cornell University. Negotiation research supports the notion that teams are more effective than individuals in many situations. Yet without adequate coordination and planning, teams are unlikely to meet their full potential, and the results can be disappointing.

What determines whether team negotiations succeed or fail? In interviews with experienced team negotiators, Kristin Behfar (University of California, Irvine), Ray Friedman (Vanderbilt University), and Jeanne Brett (Northwestern University) found that the degree to which teams effectively meet their unique challenges with appropriate strategies depends on how well they manage their internal dynamics.

Notably, the researchers found that the type of disputes that occur within teams can have very different effects on performance. When teams face disagreements that center on substantive issues related to the negotiation task, such as those related to interests, priorities, and goals, the resolution of such conflicts can actually spur better outcomes. By contrast, when conflicts get personal—deteriorating into bitter denunciations and criticism, for example—team performance may suffer.

3 Negotiation Tips for Diplomatic Negotiations

The following three suggestions can help you foster productive rather than debilitating conflict within your negotiating team:

1. Seek familiarity, not friendship.

In their research, Deborah Gruenfeld and Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Katherine Philips of Northwestern University, and Elizabeth Mannix found those team members who had not worked together before were unable to pool the information necessary to solve a problem. By contrast, teams of individuals who were familiar with one another easily pooled information and solved the same problem. Familiarity enables team members to share information and engage in the constructive conflict needed to find a solution, according to Mannix.

This doesn’t mean that teams should be built around close friendships. On the contrary, because friendship networks tend to spring up based on similar interests and skills, teams of friends may lack the diversity of knowledge and experience that’s needed to tackle a difficult negotiation. Thus, the best team may be one made up of people with diverse skills who have worked together before (and even clashed from time to time), rather than teams of close, like-minded individuals.

2. Discuss differences in advance.

To prevent conflicts among diverse, strong-minded team members from overshadowing group goals, Mannix advises negotiation teams to spend at least twice as much time preparing for upcoming talks as they expect to spend at the table. Because the other side will be ready and willing to exploit any chinks in your team’s armor, it’s important to hash out your differences in advance.

Start by encouraging the team to brainstorm and debate the issues to be discussed during talks. Spend time debating goals, the team’s best alternatives to the present agreement, and your reservation point—the worst outcome you, as a team, will accept. Then, spend just as much time exploring the other side’s likely goals, background, alternatives, and reservation point. Having trouble coming to agreement on the facts? Teams sometimes resolve substantive differences by bringing in experts for guidance on areas of confusion, Behfar and colleagues found in their research.

What about personality conflicts? In the Behfar study, some negotiators described the particular problem of coping with highly confrontational or emotional group members. Teams that overcame this difficulty did so by practicing their negotiation script in advance with the goal of directing and controlling the behavior of volatile members. To avoid conveying weakness to the other side, rather than calling for a break at the first sign of trouble, some teams devised secret signals they could use to bring wayward members in line—for instance, someone might stretch out her arms to communicate to another member that he’s getting off track.

3. Assign roles and responsibilities.

Before negotiating, teams should also discuss how to take advantage of members’ different skills, suggests Mannix. Which member has the best listening skills?

This person could be put in charge of watching and reading members of the other team and reporting his observations to his own team during breaks. Which team member has the most negotiation experience? This person could be appointed the team leader—the chief decision maker who corrals the rest of the group. Who is the best communicator? The team spokesperson should be a calm, articulate individual who is willing to follow the leader and the team’s negotiation plan.
In addition to brainstorming different scenarios that could occur at the table and role-playing how you will respond, your team should discuss the decision rules you will use when you confer privately to weigh the various offers on the table. Because unanimity can be difficult to achieve, you might opt for a majority-decision rule that allows most parties to get what they need from a deal.

By dividing up key responsibilities, debating differences of opinion before negotiating, and keeping talks respectful, your team will be in a strong position to capitalize on its differences.

What are other examples of diplomatic negotiations you’d like to share?

Related International Negotiation Articles:
How to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Negotiation – What is the role of negotiation in international business? To foster understanding and agreement between counterparts of different cultural backgrounds.

How to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Communication – Cultural Approximations of Time and the Impact on Negotiations – Here are some negotiation techniques for bargainers wondering about how to overcome cultural barriers in communication in international and diplomatic negotiations.

Adapted from “The Surprising Benefits of Conflict in Negotiating Teams,” first published in the February 2009 issue of Negotiation.

Originally published January 2015.

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