The Negotiator Magazine

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Physical Environment. Creating a more collaborative negotiation means creating a more comfortable environment. The physical environment is no exception. People are the most creative when they were comfortable enough to focus on the task at hand. In San Diego, the teams did their best to keep the hours reasonable, the chairs soft, and the food readily available. All found this to be very effective in moving the negotiations forward.

Tackling Issues. The group had more than 30 issues to discuss, ranging from wages and mentor teachers to transfer and sick leave policies. A calendar was created; topics were scheduled for certain days; prep work was provided in advance; and topic experts were scheduled. The group tackled simpler, less emotionally loaded issues first, to establish a pattern of collaborative negotiation and develop relationships under less stressful circumstances. The key to keeping the group focused and productive was to introduce a new issue every day, whether the last issue was finished or not. As a result, bargainers did not get bogged down on one issue. Unfinished issues were assigned to a subcommittee made of union and management team members, and time for the subcommittees to meet was built into the process.

Defining Commitments. Making-commitments-as-you-go on issues in a complex negotiation usually becomes a process trap. Often, if a group commits to issues one at a time, by the time the group reaches the last few issues, their prior commitments may have boxed one team into a corner. But the usual remedy -- re-opening issues settled earlier -- often feels to the other side like foul play. Another trap associated with the commit-as-you-go method is backlash from either team's board - forcing a team to come back to the table and renege on their commitment. This undermines their credibility and authority. For these reasons, it is essential to make no firm commitments on any issue until the agreement is workable in whole. In addition, we encourage teams to refrain from using the words "tentative agreement," which implies different levels of commitment depending on who you ask. In San Diego, the bargaining team defined and used another term, "Yes-able Proposition:” if everyone on the bargaining team liked the option, the option would stand for the time being. Later, it could change if the union or management board did not approve it, or another issue affected it.

Separating the Relationships from the Problem. There has been a considerable amount written about the importance of separating the problem at hand from the individuals engaged in it. The hope is to avoid at least two pitfalls: blaming one another for the problem and taking the situation personally, or sacrificing what the parties really need for the sake of preserving the relationship.

It is our experience, however, that these pitfalls are hard to avoid, as our senses of the problem solving and relationship aspects of negotiation are often very entwined. The San Diego case offers a powerful example of the effectiveness of separating the relationships from the problem and applying energy to manage both, without letting one adversely impact the other.

The parties at the table had a series of discussions about salary compensation. One day, after perhaps the most difficult conversation, they were scheduled to appear together at a celebratory event. It was an event designed to illustrate the strengths of their new working relationship – a talent show for which they planned a funny, raucous joint skit. Surprisingly, they went to the talent show. They actually enjoyed doing the skit. And they returned to the bargaining table that same night to work further on the hard and challenging problem and conversation.

In this instance, they honored the social commitment they had made, and did not allow the genuine bottom-line problem they faced about compensation to degenerate into recriminations and personal attacks. They also did not let the friendly nature of the event they attended dull their advocacy the next day for their needs.

Perhaps the cliché that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger does not apply here. In tough situations it is how you handle it that makes you stronger or weaker. This situation made the negotiation teams stronger. They benefited from it because they honored their word and agreement. If they had handled it poorly, they may have been weakened by it.

C. Between Parties At The Table And Key Stakeholders: Building Credibility And Cooperation

The Danger: The success of an exceptional contract that has been agreed to by all at the negotiation table is undermined if the union or management's governing board vetoes it; if parents, taxpayers, or other groups protest it. Even when the key parties are working well with each other, stakeholders who are not at the table can still torpedo the work. Especially when the parties at the table are beginning to work with each other, certain stakeholders may become more suspicious and wary of the process.

Some helpful actions include:

Education. Prior to the contract negotiations, many parents, teachers, union representatives, principals, community and religious leaders were invited to collaborative skills training. ThoughtBridge conducted two seminars with approximately 400 people in each. These included past and potential critics of contract bargaining. In both sessions the superintendent, union president, and school board president spoke of the need to move beyond the strike and to work together. This broad exposure to the interest-based approach served the negotiations well as a larger segment of the community became familiar with the collaborative approach.

Third Party Communications. Minimizing damage caused by outside influences is essential to creating an environment of teamwork and joint problem solving. In San Diego, the bargaining team agreed to keep discussion of conflicts inside the room. The group also developed procedural guidelines for handling these conflicts constructively.

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Copyright © 2002 Grande Lum and Monica Christie