Thursday, December 7, 2023

As lawyers at Student Legal Services, we regularly negotiate with landlords, prosecutors, and others as part of our work. You don’t have to be a lawyer to have a productive negotiation. Negotiation may be helpful in resolving situations with your family, friends, etc. In the workplace, negotiation is a form of collaboration that can lead to a shared understanding of employee and employer needs and expectations, which can improve well-being and job satisfaction. 

When is Negotiation Appropriate? 

You can’t force people to negotiate. All parties must be open and willing to participate. Negotiation works only when all parties have a clear mind and can communicate without resorting to name-calling or belittling. You will not be productive if you are angry, intoxicated, grieving, or caught off-guard. That means that you may have to “plan” your negotiation so everyone can gather their thoughts and consider their goals.  

What Makes a Productive Negotiation? 

Before negotiation can begin, consider the venue. A written negotiation (email, text) may be ideal for emotionally fraught situations or when there is an imbalance of power between the parties. Alternatively, verbal negotiation may allow for more in-depth exploration of the issues and emotions involved. In verbal negotiations, parties should agree that everyone is able to speak without interruption.  

In certain situations, it might be helpful to have a third-party present to facilitate the conversation and/or present ideas for resolution. This is only appropriate if the third party is neutral and is trusted by all involved.  

Before beginning a negotiation, it’s important for you to decide what your goals are. You should enter with the mindset that you are there to come to an agreement and compromise, not to be “right.” Your goal might be something specific like, “I want my coworker and I to split the tasks on our joint project equally.” If your goal is objective (for example, a specific number of items, time, or money), consider multiple numbers: “It would great if we split the work 50-50, but I’d be happy with 60-40.” You’ve given yourself room to negotiate. In this example, you may also want to consider other types of contribution. If your coworker can’t take on a large portion of the tasks, perhaps they could focus on those that are least appealing to you.  

Sometimes, identifying your goal may be difficult. While restorative justice is not the topic of this article (and is different from negotiation), it can be useful here. One of the principles of restorative justice is identifying and repairing harm. For example, an important meeting was scheduled with such little notice that you could not attend. You may have experienced multiple harms: you were treated differently from colleagues who received the invitation earlier, your time and expertise are not valued, and you missed critical information. Once the harm is identified, your goal for the negotiation is to repair the harm.  

Your goal doesn’t have to be static. While sharing your perspective about the issue is not required for all negotiations, having an open dialogue will allow you to reassess your goal based on information from the other party.  

Even if you’ve approached the negotiation with a clear mind, emotions can still get the best of us. Take time to refocus on the bigger picture so you don’t get caught up in the minutia. For example, your workload is increasing because of an unfilled position in your unit, and you hope to negotiate your new responsibilities. It will not be productive to dwell on how or when you were notified of this new change. You may be rightly upset about this, but it distracts from the purpose of the negotiation.  

Sometimes you need to take steps to refocus the other party on the issue at hand. When this happens, you should acknowledge their position and remind them that you can disagree about aspects of the issue while still finding a way to move forward. 

Now What? 

A negotiation can have multiple outcomes. If you have an agreement, everyone should be able to express what the terms are. Ambiguity and vagueness will create problems in the future. As lawyers, we like everything to be in writing, but that’s not appropriate for many situations. Instead, each party should be able to recite the agreement verbally. If the agreement calls for follow up, it should be specific. For example, instead of you and your supervisor agreeing to check in “more often,” you could put monthly meetings on your calendar. Clear, actionable steps will ensure that the negotiated agreement is upheld. 

A negotiation may involve several issues. Though it may not feel like it, a partial agreement is a success. This productive negotiation may allow you to revisit the other issues in the future.  

Sometimes negotiations fail, and that’s OK. While compromise can be useful, it’s not always possible to reach an agreement where all parties’ goals are met. Knowing when to walk away is a negotiation skill. It is not productive to talk in circles or to continue when the goals are too far apart. Sometimes what is best for our mental health is to drop the issue or consider options outside of negotiation.  

Cover image by Christina