Negotiating Skills: How to Bargain “Behind the Table”

Negotiating “behind the table”: Help your counterpart secure buy-in

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989, U.S. president George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, were eager to win international support for German reunification and German membership in NATO. But Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev faced strong opposition to these measures from members of his own Communist Party. Both parties negotiating skills were put to the test.

Knowing that they could not meet their goals without Soviet cooperation, Bush and Baker engaged in a campaign to help their reformist Soviet counterparts overcome internal resistance to German reunification within NATO, writes Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius in a recent article in the Negotiation Journal.

The effort included helping the Soviets construct a convincing explanation of how the negotiations over Germany would benefit the Soviet Union. Specifically, Bush and Baker negotiated an agreement within the United States on a document that would transform NATO from a military alliance to more of a political one, a change that would make NATO less threatening to the Soviets. Baker quietly led negotiations for NATO members to adopt the document. With the document in hand, American and Soviet foreign ministers were able to persuade previously resistant Communist Party leaders to accept a unified Germany within NATO.

Experienced negotiators understand the value of working to secure buy-in from their constituents as they put together deals with outside parties. They also understand that their counterparts must obtain a mandate to negotiate from their own constituents—and that opposition on either side could disrupt the deal.

In his article, Sebenius stresses the value of going a step further, as Bush and his team did: namely, identifying how your counterparts might deal more effectively with their internal, “behind the table” challenges—and then helping them do it.

The Negotiating Skills Game: A two-level game

Illustrating this strategy with complex diplomatic negotiating skills, Sebenius draws on political scientist Robert Putnam’s conceptualization of “two-level games.” According to Putnam, the Level One game refers to traditional diplomatic agreements, and the Level Two game focuses on how negotiators sell these agreements once they are back home. This pattern roughly matches up to the work of business negotiators, who must secure buy-in at the office during or after negotiations with external partners.

As it turns out, Level Two challenges can be even more difficult than those we face at Level One. Sebenius tells the story of a labor negotiation in which union and management representatives knew they would be able to easily put together a deal. But, recognizing that their constituents would be suspicious of a quickly negotiated agreement, they locked themselves in a room, spent a pleasant evening sharing food and drinks, and occasionally paused to shout and pound on the table for the benefit of those on the other side of the door. They emerged late that night, looking haggard, to announce that they had reached agreement—and avoided being labeled sellouts for conceding too quickly.

Negotiating skills tip: To help yourself, help them first

How can you identify and work to overcome challenges on your counterpart’s side of the table? Here are four negotiating skills suggestions from Sebenius’s article:

1. Understand their barriers. Pay attention to how counterparts view the issues on the table and recognize when their resistance reflects behind-the-table constraints.

2. Cultivate back-channel relationships. Many political negotiations Sebenius describes hinged on relationships diplomats forged across the table—and behind the scenes. Prior to scheduled negotiating sessions, diplomats often advise one another on statements and actions that might win over key players at the table. You can do the same.

3. Take the high road. Avoid making statements that might inflame potential behind-the-scenes deal blockers—and resist the urge to respond to any provocative statements they make.

4. Help them write an “acceptance speech.” Aid your counterparts in preparing the message they will deliver to their constituents to announce your tentative agreement, advises William Ury in his book The Power of a Positive No (Bantam Dell, 2007). Be sure, in particular, to prepare compelling responses to likely criticisms.

What negotiating skills do you rely on the most? Leave us a comment.

Related Negotiation Skills Article: Great Negotiators vs. Great Negotiations: The Program on Negotiation’s Great Negotiator Teaching Series


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Resource: “Level Two Negotiations: Helping the Other Side Meet Its ‘Behind-the-Table’ Challenges,” by James K. Sebenius. Negotiation Journal, 2013.

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