Some things are not settled in the light of publicity or under the scrutiny of others at the table. Much of what is said at the table is said not to reach agreement, but to prove to others in the negotiators’ organization that their views are being expressed and fought for. Off-the-record talks permit each party to tell the other what the real impediments to agreement are and why some issues are more important than others.
Off-the-record discussions also set the stage for later accommodation at the table. In her ten-year research study of labor negotiations, Ann Douglas found that private talks between principle negotiators frequently preceded settlement. I had the same experience in customer-supplier negotiations. What we learned from each other during private meetings could not have been said before others. Yet it was what we learned off the record that closed the deal.
Off-the-record talks foster movement toward settlement because the opposing negotiators can talk about their personal feelings as well as their organizational constraints on a person-to-person basis. They can privately indicate a willingness to compromise or to exchange one issue for another. These informal moves toward reconciliation might be politically unwise if discussed at the table.