Ask A Negotiation Expert: Think Outside the Conference Room

By on / Negotiation Skills

In her new book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (Riverhead Books, 2018),Thrive Labs founder Priya Parker, a professional facilitator with a background in conflict resolution, argues that most of us just go through the motions when planning events, whether a dinner party, a conference, or a negotiation. The result is often a dull, forgettable experience that fails to achieve much in the long term. Parker spoke to Negotiation Briefings about how we can make our negotiations and other group events more meaningful and rewarding.

Negotiation Briefings: In The Art of Gathering, you encourage us to think about what we want to achieve from our gatherings and let those goals guide us. How might this process play out for those planning a business negotiation?

Priya Parker: Regardless of the type of gathering, we tend to make the mistake of conflating category with purpose. We tend to assume that a negotiation has to look a certain way or lead to a certain outcome. Those who are planning to facilitate a negotiation should think very deeply ahead of time about its purpose and, indeed, about their purpose for all their negotiations. You might set the goal of making each negotiation transformative to the relationship of those involved. Over the course of a lifetime, the negotiations you participated in could bear your signature, so that someone looking back might think, Wow, she always seems to find a third way.

NB: What advice would you give negotiators who are choosing the setting for their talks?

PP: People from all different fields have told me some variant of, “The room does 80% of the work.” Take the case of failed merger negotiations between New Jersey–based telecom company Lucent and French telecom giant Alcatel back in 2001. After a year of talks, a deal valued at more than $20 billion had taken shape, and the parties just needed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Keeping a low profile was needed to avoid bad press if the deal fell apart, so the parties were set to meet at a nondescript airport hotel in New Jersey. But at the last minute, one of Alcatel’s senior directors got sick and asked to move the meeting to France. They ended up using a grand château—a restored 55-room castle dripping with historic artifacts that was owned by an Alcatel subsidiary.

Although Alcatel was the bigger, more powerful party, the two sides had successfully maintained the pretense that they were negotiating a merger of equals. But over the course of three long days, the château’s opulence brought the “Frenchness out of the French,” according to Chris Varelas, then a key Citigroup adviser to Lucent on the deal. Those on the Alcatel side became increasingly arrogant, asserting their dominance. The Lucent side was aghast. Eventually, Lucent’s chairman walked out, and the deal collapsed. Varelas insists it was because the venue exposed the “merger of equals” as a fiction.

I always tell negotiators not to accept any default physical setup. Return to your purpose: If you want to develop a warm rapport, think about an informal, casual setting. If you want to encourage people to show their emotions, don’t meet in a glass-walled conference room in the middle of company headquarters. Think deeply about the desired outcome of the negotiation and how the room will help you meet that outcome.

NB: What guidelines do you suggest in terms of how many people to include in a group negotiation and whom to include?

PP: First, have a sense of what size group will meet your goals. Do you want to have a conversation among multiple people who are deeply engaged? Then don’t include more than six people. If you want to include diverse viewpoints, then eight to 12 people is better. Above that number, many of those present will become audience members rather than participants, unless you divide them into smaller groups. If you want an audience, that’s OK, but be clear about what each person’s role is.

Second, think about who needs to be there. On one hand, when you don’t have a lot of people in the room, it can be easier to reach an agreement. But when you leave people out, the agreement may be harder to maintain in the larger community. You need to be strategic about who should be present to be sure that (1) the parties can reach an agreement and (2) their constituents will buy into the decision.

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