Weighing the costs and benefits of negotiating on your own turf
Dealing with multi-party teams
Positioning yourself to be persuasive
Step one in negotiation is convincing your counterpart to engage with you about a possible deal. Often this is routine. If you’re shopping for a car, you know to go to dealership that sells them. Likewise, people who put a For Sale sign on their lawn are eager for buyers. As we saw in the previous module (Getting Them to the Table), however, gaining another person’s attention sometimes is a challenge.
Even when that’s resolved, there’s the matter of setting the stage: deciding on where to meet and who will be involved. This can be routine, as well, but sometimes it’s contentious. When parties can’t agree on the process, negotiations come to a halt—before they really can begin—at least until people’s attitudes or circumstances change.
To explore such issues and analyze some cases, complete a short survey about your own feelings about negotiation ground rules.
Where to Meet
Those two survey questions are taken from a longer questionnaire on available on HBR.org, Assessment: What Kind of Negotiator Are You?. Later, when you’re finished with this module, you can see how other tactical decisions reflect your general approach to negotiation. First, though, let’s consider cases where how situational factors had an impact on important diplomatic and business negotiations.
Here are results from the 14,000 people who took the HBR survey:
When possible, I negotiate on my own turf - 20%
I prefer a neutral site where no one has an advantage - 20%
I like to negotiate where the other side will feel most comfortable - 26%
It makes no difference where I negotiate - 34%
In short, a third of the respondents feel it doesn’t matter where they negotiate. The flip side of that is that most people think it does, though in different ways. Forty percent favor their own domain or a neutral site. That reluctance may be about maintaining their own comfort and control. Or it might be worry about symbolism, not wanting to look like they made a concession or are desperate. Then again, extending oneself to make the other side feel comfortable could be a positive if it’s interpreted as a good will gesture and it’s reciprocated. Of course, that’s not always guaranteed.
In 2010 an Israeli Deputy Minister summoned the Turkish ambassador to rebuke him for a television series that had been airing in the latter’s country. As you can see in the picture, the host situated himself in a taller chair and put his guest in a lower one. (He also removed the Turkish flag from the table, violating a customary courtesy.)
Whatever the Minister’s intention, his game of chairs backfired badly. A photo of the meeting was published worldwide and the Israeli host was roundly criticized for trying to demean his counterpart. The relationship between the Israel and Turkey, already tense, worsened significantly.
Hardball tricks like this run counter to the advice in the classic book Getting to Yes. Its authors—Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton—counsel negotiators to “separate the people from the problem.”
Their view is pragmatic and based on the notion that the tougher the substantive issues, the more important is not getting sidetracked by petty squabbles. They advocate arranging the setting to foster collaboration, not confrontation. As they state, “It helps to sit literally on the same side of a table and to have in front of you the contract, the map, the blank pad of paper, or whatever else depicts the problem.” Where possible structuring the negotiation as a “side-by-side activity” encourages the parties to “jointly face a common task.”
There are times, however, when stage setting isn’t just about one-upmanship. Instead it may be bound up contentious issues that are up for negotiation. The Paris peace talks that brought the Vietnam War to a close were delayed for months while the parties fought over the shape of the table. Many observers were outraged at having hundreds of soldiers and civilians perish daily because of debate over furniture placement.
Much more was at issue, however. North Vietnam and its ally, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (also known as the Viet Cong or NLF), refused to recognize South Vietnamese government. South Vietnam, in turn, would not recognize the NLF. The issue of legitimacy was central to the conflict.
North Vietnam insisted on a circular table where all four parties would be accorded equal status. Countering that, South Vietnamese officials insisted upon a rectangular table where it would sit next to the US representatives. Opposite them would be North Vietnam and the NLF.