Business Negotiation January 04, 2016

A Walk in the Woods

Some things are best not settled in the light of publicity or under the scrutiny of those at the table. Much of what is said in the negotiating room is said not to reach agreement but to prove to others that their views are being expressed and fought for...

Some things are best not settled in the light of publicity or under the scrutiny of those at the table. Much of what is said in the negotiating room is said not to reach agreement but to prove to others that their views are being expressed and fought for. Off-the-record talks permit the opposing parties 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 bargaining table. In her ten-year research study of labor negotiations, Ann Douglas found that private talks between principal 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 in front of others. Yet it was what we learned “off-the-record” that closed the deal.

Off-the-record talks foster movement toward settlement because the negotiators can talk about their personal feelings as well as their organizational constraints on a person-to-person basis. They can privately indicated 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 in front of others.

There is a downside to off-the-record talks. Good negotiators know that not everything can or should be said off the record. They also know that some people, especially those with a strong need to be liked, talk too much in the privacy of a comfortable restaurant or under the gentle influence of good wine. Therein lies the danger inherent in a walk and talk in the woods.
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