How to… Negotiate
#16 in a series of citizens’ guides by the
Western Organization of Resource Councils
Negotiating is the art of getting what you want
from someone who has the power to give it to you.
Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us
Citizens’ groups spend great amounts of time, en-
never fear to negotiate.
ergy, and resources getting to the point where they
— John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961.
can negotiate with a government agency or corpo-
ration, but they aren’t always ready to negotiate once
they get there.
Citizens’ groups need to be able to recognize
It is easy to miss an opportunity to win signifi-
when to negotiate, and then to be ready to negoti-
cant improvements in people’s lives by failing to rec-
ate. The first step to recognition and readiness is to
ognize the need to negotiate. It is easy to confuse
think ahead: why would we want to negotiate?
negotiating with compromising on principles.
The main reason community organizations ne-
Negotiation does involve compromise. Unless you
gotiate is to get some or all of what we want – to get
can get the decision maker to want exactly what you
concessions from a decision maker. They negotiate
want, you will have to compromise – if you want to
to make a deal.
win anything at all. But you don’t have to compro-
Sometimes, a decision maker will propose that
mise your principles.
you and a third party sit down to negotiate: “Your
group and the Big Industry Trade Group need to sit
down and work this one out.” When that happens,
you need to know whether it is in your interests to
If your group has built enough power to be able
negotiate. Do you have any leverage over the Big
to negotiate with a decision maker, you probably don’t
Industry Trade Group? Or is your leverage useful
feel like “giving anything away.” But if you don’t sit
only against the decision maker? Will the decision
down to talk, you won’t get anything out of all the
maker “lend” you some of his or her leverage to make
work you’ve done to get “to the table” [see box].
the negotiation meaningful? Or is this just a ploy by
That doesn’t mean you have to stick with a ne-
the decision maker to avoid making hard decisions?
gotiation no matter what. Anyone who has bought a
Ask yourselves some really hard questions: Are
used car knows you have to be willing to walk away
we 30% ahead if we get 30% of what we want now?
without a deal, if you want to keep your shirt.
Will we get more if we hold off on negotiating until
later – or will we end up with nothing? If we can get
more later, can we wait that long? Can we take 30%
now and still get more later?
The answers to these questions will be different
every time you are considering negotiating. They
depend on the issue, the strength of your group and
of your allies and opponents, the decision
maker, and the strategy you’ve carried out
to get here. The answers also depend on
making some guesses – educated ones –
about the future.
Define your goals
The next step – before you even agree to negoti-
ate – is to define your goals clearly. Work with your
group until you can agree – in writing – on what
© Copyright 1998 by the Western Organization of Resource Councils
Printed on recycled paper
How to Negotiate
you want, ultimately, and what your “bottom line”
Know your adversaries –
would be in a negotiation.
There are many times when community organi-
and your allies
zations should not negotiate. If you’ve talked things
Effective citizens’ groups are very good at get-
over in your group, and you really don’t want to com-
ting to know and understand people and groups
promise, even a little bit, then there may be nothing
whose interests they share. Knowing what motivates
your allies is critical to good negotiations, because
A more common reason not to negotiate: you
your opponents will be trying to divide you from your
don’t have relatively equal bargaining power with
allies. Just as you need to know what you want out
the other party in the negotiation. If the other party
of the negotiation before you even begin, you need
has nothing at all to fear from you, and no reason to
to know what your friends want out of the negotia-
give you anything, the most you can hope for is
tion in order to succeed.
therapy, not negotiation. In therapy, the other party
It’s just as important to know as much as you
will tell you what’s going to happen to you, and try
can about your adversaries in the negotiation. What
to convince you to feel good about it.
divides them? What do they want out of the negotia-
Once you’ve decided to negotiate, there are some
tion? Who has reasons to give you some or all of what
very important principles to follow in preparing.
To succeed in a negotia-
The Power Ladder
tion, your group must have
leverage to use in the pro-
cess. That means building
popular support, focusing
Community organizations develop
media attention on the is-
issue campaign strategies — a series
sue over which you are ne-
of actions to build pressure on a decision
gotiating, harnessing tech-
nical expertise to back up
maker to give them what they want.
your arguments — and
make a deal stick
As an organization builds power in
building the confidence of
your negotiating team.
a campaign, it climbs this “power ladder”
Most important, it means
– moving from powerlessness at the
having alternatives to the
make a deal
beginning, towards the ultimate goal of
negotiating process that
you are ready and willing
governance – control over the decisions
to use. If you are negotiat-
at the table
you care about.
ing with a corporation, you
must be able and willing to
To negotiate, you have to have more
go to the legislature, state
than just recognition of your group by a
agencies, the courts, or the
decision maker. You need enough power
streets if necessary. If you
have nowhere else to go,
that the decision maker will sit down “at
good negotiators will sense
the table” with you to discuss how to
weakness — and exploit it.
resolve the conflict.
How to Negotiate
give to your side. Successfully negotiating these easy
Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot
things early on defines your group as reasonable,
enter into contracts.
and willing to work with others of opposing views.
It also gives some momentum to the negotiations.
— Nelson Mandela
Don’t fear a standoff
Like the car-buyer dealing with the used car
salesman, you have to be able to stand it when things
are going nowhere. Don’t offer something for noth-
ing just to break the deadlock. Let the other side
sweat – remember, they’re at the table because they
want something from you, too. Don’t cut off negotia-
tions – it makes you look bad. But if you make an
offer to break a deadlock, make it a fair trade, not a
Meet outside the
Plan your strategy
Success in any negotiation depends on planning
The more you get to know and understand the
your strategy ahead of time, with everyone who will
people around a negotiating table — your allies and
be on your side of the table. What strategies will you
your adversaries — the more likely you are to find a
use? One of the most familiar – and effective – is the
compromise that’s good for your side. Breakthroughs
“good cop, bad cop” strategy, in which one member of
often happen when negotiators get away from the
your team takes a very hard line. Then, after a while,
pressure and the spotlight of the official negotiation.
another member jumps in with a proposal that seems
moderate – a bigger compromise – by comparison.
Disarm with charm
There are lots of other possibilities, but use a simi-
Just because you disagree on policy positions
lar approach, in which one member of the team car-
does not mean your adversaries are inhuman. You’ll
ries the stick (or makes threats), and another offers
get further if you respect them, and try to close the
gap between you and them. They probably expect
It’s important to be prepared with the facts. Facts
you to be angry about everything they say or do, so
and logic are not enough to win – if they were, nego-
being polite, smiling, and sharing a joke or friendly
tiation would be a matter of debate, not leveraging
small talk will surprise them – and make it harder
power. But you have an edge up if you can establish
for them to be hard on you.
early on that you know what you are talking about,
and that you stick to what you can defend.
Another reason to prepare with allies is to make
sure you don’t undercut your allies’ position in the
Compromise is a key and beautiful word.
negotiation – and that they don’t undercut yours.
It is making the deal, getting that vital breather,
At the same time, you want to plan ways to get your
usually the victory. If you start with nothing,
negotiating adversaries to undercut each other.
demand 100%, then compromise for 30%,
you’re 30% ahead.
Work on easy things first
A free and open society is an ongoing
Start negotiations with things you can agree to
conflict, interrupted periodically by
early and easily, even if they are relatively simple or
symbolic instead of substantive. Swap these for
— Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals.
things that are relatively easy for your opponent to
How to Negotiate
If you’re having fun, you will be more relaxed,
If you’re at the negotiating table with represen-
creative, and effective. Acting like you’re having fun
tatives of a large corporation or a government agency,
is a good strategy, too. Your adversaries will expect
you’ve come a long way, and there is a lot at stake
you to be deadly earnest. If you look like comfort-
for your group. You need to take it seriously by plan-
able, like you’ve done this before – smiling, sharing
ning your strategy carefully, and working to win as
knowing looks with other people on your side – you
much as you can. But you also need to have fun.
will confuse them.
For more on Negotiation:
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How to Develop a Winning Strategy, #10 in this
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Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giv-
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vice, on the World Wide Web: http://www.worc.org.
“bible for negotiators”.
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