Techniques for Leading Multiparty Negotiations: Structuring the Bargaining Process

Negotiation techniques from great negotiator Tommy Koh on how to lead multiparty negotiations

By — on / Mediation


Imagine leading negotiations involving representatives from most of the world’s nations on a contentious topic such as sustainable development. Where would you start? How would you proceed when conflict emerged? How would you know when it was time to wrap things up?

These are some of the questions that Ambassador Tommy Koh has faced over the course of his 50-year diplomatic career, during which he has led international conferences, mediated global disputes, and negotiated on behalf of the United Nations and his home country of Singapore.

Back on April 10, 2014 the Program on Negotiation welcomed Ambassador Koh to the Harvard campus to present him with its 2014 Great Negotiator Award. Over the course of panel discussions led by Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius, Program on Negotiation Managing Director Susan Hackley, and Harvard Kennedy School professor Nicholas Burns, Koh offered insights that will benefit any negotiator involved in managing complex talks.

According to Koh, the chair of an international conference must be both “a choreographer and the conductor of an orchestra.” In addition to negotiating the specifics, a conference chair must choreograph an effective structure for the conference and then evaluate and conduct the players, he explained. He then offered several vivid anecdotes as illustration.

When consensus is good enough

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro to chair the United Nations Earth Summit in June 1992, Ambassador Koh felt “desperate,” he said. He and his team had just one week to negotiate consensus on principles of sustainable development for the 21st century among 178 countries. Koh was armed with a draft agreement three years in the making, but it included 300 paragraphs of disputed language in brackets.

To make the Earth Summit more manageable, Koh laid down two ground rules, he explained at one of the Great Negotiator panels. First, no unbracketed (agreed-upon) language could be reopened for discussion. Second, any proposal to improve the language of bracketed (disputed) text would have to be approved unanimously by the conference.

To Koh’s shock, the lead representative from Saudi Arabia took the floor and asked for the entire chapter on atmosphere to be deleted from the draft, saying that the chapter was a “mistake.”

With the Saudis filibustering, Koh realized he would have to “outflank” his adversary. He met individually with members of OPEC, the international oil cartel of which Saudi Arabia is a founding member, and asked for their support. The OPEC nations agreed with Koh that a chapter on atmosphere was justified.

Next, Koh approached Arab countries that were receiving aid from Saudi Arabia. “If you feel that you have to speak in support of the Saudi opinion,” he said to them, “please do so, but please be very brief and make your argument as weak as possible.”

Then, following an entire night of Saudi filibustering, Koh announced on the conference floor that the Saudis had made their position clear, but that as chair, he was ruling that sufficient consensus existed to adopt the chapter on atmosphere. Koh asked the Saudi delegation if they wanted to object to his ruling. They declined, and the chapter stood as written.

Controlling the negotiation process: Limiting the influence of dissenters to the agreement

“Consensus is not unanimity,” Koh said at the Program on Negotiation event. “If somebody is just being difficult, doesn’t have a reasonable case, has no support whatsoever, I think it is incumbent upon you as the chair not to allow one delegation to hijack the process.”

When one party in a multiparty negotiation refuses to budge, continued negotiation may be a waste of time. Instead, consider following Koh’s lead and targeting other parties who are at risk of being swayed by the deal blocker. Work on winning over those parties with the goal of building a strong coalition. If you’re effective, the deal blocker will face a choice between getting on board and being left behind.

Break the negotiation down to size

In 1978, as part of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, Ambassador Koh was tasked with negotiating agreement on the financial terms of contracts to mine the ocean floor. Rifts had developed on the issue between various coalitions, such as developed and developing nations, and coastal and landlocked nations.

Koh described how he broke down the unwieldy negotiation, which involved about 1,000 delegates from 150 nations, to a manageable size, a process he has called “miniaturization.” He explained that it was important to include all the nations in initial discussions, as many of them needed to be educated about the issues at stake, the technical terms to be discussed, and the parameters of an agreement.

Tommy Koh’s innovative bargaining strategy

Once everyone had been brought up to speed, Koh convened a smaller group of decision makers. To avoid the appearance of playing favorites, he used a clever strategy:

I invented a new group called the Group of Financial Experts, and I picked a meeting room that could accommodate a maximum of 40 people. It was open-ended. … Anybody could come, but … calling it the Group of Financial Experts was somewhat intimidating. So a lot of my colleagues felt that they didn’t qualify to join this group. I didn’t try to dissuade them that they did.

As Koh had hoped, only about 30 to 40 representatives felt confident enough in their abilities to join the Group of Financial Experts. This proved to be the ideal size to make further headway.

When this group was close to a deal, Koh said he “took a great risk”: He formed an even smaller group for negotiations. He chose just one person to represent the developed world and three from the developing world: one from Asia, one from Africa, and one from Latin America.

The group surprised conference leaders by reaching a highly creative agreement. The success led to Koh’s being elected president of the entire Law of the Sea conference, which in 1982 produced an ocean treaty that has been ratified by 165 countries.

“Consensus is not unanimity,” said Koh. “If somebody is just being difficult … has no support whatsoever, I think it is incumbent upon you … not to allow one delegation to hijack the process.”

Transparency during negotiations: Key to a viable negotiated agreement?

As his diplomatic career progressed, Koh came to view miniaturization as a risky process. Negotiators who are excluded may reject the final agreement, not necessarily because they disagree with its substance but because the process appears undemocratic and lacking in transparency, he said.

For miniaturization to be effective, he cautioned, leaders must choose “men and women of standing in their respective groups” who have the power to convince their group to ratify the final agreement. “If you choose badly,” Koh said, “you will be rebuffed.”

Adopting a “tough heart”

On the Program on Negotiation panel, Ambassador Koh said he was so “softhearted” that he had never fired an employee during his 50-year diplomatic career. Yet when chairing international conferences, Koh felt a strong sense of responsibility to replace people who were not succeeding, whether due to a lack of knowledge, indecision, controversy, or some other problem.

During preparations for the Earth Summit in 1990, a committee formed to draft the summit’s Declaration of Principles. Upon receiving conflicting proposals from the conference’s various delegations, the committee’s chair, the environmental minister of Czechoslovakia, Bedřich Moldan—a scientist with little diplomatic experience—personally drafted a compromise text rather than negotiating agreement with the various parties. To his surprise and dismay, the Group of 77, a coalition of developing nations, rejected Moldan’s draft on the grounds that it was biased in favor of developed countries—a characterization that Koh called “more perception than reality.” The Group of 77 then announced that it would no longer negotiate under Moldan’s chairmanship.

Negotiations versus unilateral decision making

With Koh standing by Moldan, the committee chose India and Norway to lead their informal negotiations, which eventually reached an impasse. Koh, with Moldan’s blessing, agreed to take over the talks on two conditions. First, he asked India and Norway to produce a single negotiating text within 24 hours. Second, he instructed them to narrow the negotiations down to eight countries from the developing world and eight from the developed world. India and Norway agreed. The smaller group finished negotiating within 24 hours, producing a final agreement that was not dramatically different from Moldan’s.

Why did Koh succeed where Moldan had failed? First, Koh adopted a more open process that relied on negotiations rather than unilateral decision making. Second, Koh believes that because he was from a developing nation, the Group of 77 viewed him as more sensitive than Moldan to their aspirations to develop economically yet sustainably. “I think being seen as a man from the south was psychologically helpful,” Koh said.

The story illustrates the importance of creating both the reality and the perception of neutrality when negotiating consensus among multiple parties. 

Are there any techniques we missed that you find helpful in negotiations? Leave a comment.

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One Response to “Techniques for Leading Multiparty Negotiations: Structuring the Bargaining Process”

  • John C.

    brilliant negotiating strategy by a brilliant negotiation leader. The writer should have commented more on the dynamics and trust-building tactics.


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