At home, work, or play, multiparty negotiations—group decision-making processes involving three or more people—are an unavoidable part of life.
Whether it’s a family meeting about the division of an inheritance, friends deciding where to dine out, or department heads discussing the rollout of a new company initiative, multiparty negotiators are shaped by different contexts and interests.
These differences make communication dynamics in a multiparty negotiation more challenging and complex. However, when a group finally reaches a consensus agreement, the outcome can have a widespread and lasting impact that benefits everyone in the long run—even on a global scale.
This happened in Kigali, Rwanda in 2015 when negotiators from more than 170 countries worked out a legally binding agreement to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons to combat climate change. The Kigali multiparty negotiation took seven years to negotiate, but experts anticipate that the outcome may be more effective at fighting global warming than the Paris Climate Agreement.
When bargaining involves more people, there are more issues, more perspectives, and more potential solutions. With so many voices vying for different outcomes, it becomes difficult to listen to one another and arrive at an agreement. Coalitions form and re-form as allegiances shift. Conflicts between coalitions lead to informational, computational, logistical, procedural, and strategic problems that hinder progress.
This makes multiparty negotiations unpredictable and difficult to manage.
Thankfully, the murky waters can be made clearer by planning ahead and practicing certain elements of principled negotiation. Here are some negotiation management tips for improving the chances of a more successful outcome.
Understand the Stages of a Multiparty Negotiation
A multiparty negotiation is more than a discussion between multiple people. In fact, it has three distinct stages. Understanding the purpose and flow of these stages can help you prepare and understand what to expect.
In the pre-negotiation stage, all parties involved first decide which participants will be attending the negotiation talks. Coalitions are formed, and roles are defined.
Each party also privately determines their best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). A BATNA is a worst-case scenario of what will happen if negotiations fall apart, and it tends to shift as multiparty negotiations progress. Each party should share their concerns, and an agenda should address those issues.
Formal Negotiation Stage
Next comes the more formal negotiation stage. With a well-defined agenda in place, the group should appoint a chairman or moderator to ensure diverse perspectives among all parties at the table are properly represented. This is the stage where participants try to generate solutions through surveys, brainstorming sessions, or other methods.
At the formal negotiation stage, conflicts are inevitable, so a moderator with strong conflict resolution skills is key. It is their job to defuse emotionally charged situations and manage participant behavior, including tone of voice or disrespectful language. They also need to keep everyone focused on reaching the best consensus.
Finally comes the agreement stage of the negotiation process. This is when the group chooses a solution, develops and implements an action plan, and evaluates the process and outcomes.
Reframe Conflict from the Lens of Positivity
How people perceive conflict greatly influences the choices and outcomes of a negotiation. When viewed as the expression of different interests, rather than a fight to be won, conflict becomes easier to manage.
But conflict doesn’t only come from open disagreement.
Attempts at cooperation can be viewed as competing. Another group member leading by example can be mistaken for a power grab. It is important to reverse these negative perceptions of conflict and reframe them in a positive light. By doing so, all parties can remain detached, practical, and focused on solutions.
Focus on Clear Communication for Coalitions
Coalition building is unavoidable in most multiparty negotiations. When certain groups have similar interests, they will likely join forces. But whether you’ve formed a blocking coalition to protect your interests or a winning coalition to improve the odds of getting your end of the deal, your priority should be valuable trade-offs and win-win scenarios.
Though they have their value, coalitions are inevitably unstable because they are based on interests that can shift during the negotiation process. When those shifts happen, it can lead to a competitive and defensive atmosphere. A few simple communication techniques can go a long way:
- Agree on problem-solving procedures.
- Closely listen to and address one another’s interests.
- Reframe criticism constructively.
- Explore creative ideas outside of the box.
All of these will enhance relationships in any coalition.
Manage Group Interactions during the Negotiation Process
Two-party and multiparty negotiations share a common goal: to establish a zone of possible agreement (ZOPA). A ZOPA is the common ground for parties in a negotiation. In this zone, participants shift from being competitive to being collaborative. They realize that helping one another makes it easier for everyone to meet their objectives.
While a perfect outcome is not guaranteed for everyone, a ZOPA is crucial for finding solutions that surpass everyone’s BATNA.
With the help of a moderator, ground rules will help define how parties decide on the best proposal. Voting may not necessarily be the best approach—some parties can be completely excluded or vulnerable to blackmail. Instead, a consensus agreementis usually best. In a consensus agreement, participants settle for the solution closest to their desired outcomes.
Future-Proof Negotiation Skills
Effective negotiation skills and the ability to engage and inspire others to action are two characteristics of exceptional leaders.
The basics of managing multiparty negotiations can be exponentially useful for tomorrow’s business landscape. Practice won’t just improve your persuasiveness, but also your overall communication and even empathy. As we move toward an increasingly digital, distributed workforce, these skills will be crucial in just about any situation involving the exchange of ideas.