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Negotiating Skill —
A Necessity for
All Municipal Officials

Linda Stamato

                        By Linda Stamato
Co-Director, Center for Negotiation
and Conflict Resolution
Rutgers, the State University
of New Jersey
four people in conversation 2 standing and two sitting

Negotiations among individuals and within and between groups take place every day in municipalities as policy and planning decisions need to be made and differences managed in ways that advance public needs and social purposes. Resolving conflicts over different positions are daily challenges, whether the issue is allocation of resources or concerns planning processes and decisions such as siting affordable housing or essential but—by some—unwanted facilities. And, then, too, there are the employment-related negotiations, product and service contracts, and workplace relationships where legitimate interests conflict and negotiations take place. The fact that municipalities are political structures, moreover, adds to the scope and complexity of negotiations.

It is important to be prepared for negotiations and to be aware of the many factors that can affect the dynamic. While there is no one way to be successful in each and every negotiating context, there are some insights, based on research, direct experience and observation that can help to make individuals better negotiators and to improve the process.

Negotiation: Practice and Research Of late, negotiation, a once purely adversarial, one-time event has evolved into a relationship-based, ongoing process that puts a premium on empathy and cooperation. And it is a subject that fascinates. It appears regularly now as a topic in popular magazines that, for example, offer airline travelers tips on how to win every time and it has become the subject of inquiry in many disciplines producing serious, and, less ambitious, scholarly journal articles. Negotiation is the focus of an increasing number of course offerings in business and public policy and planning schools and in a plethora of workshops, for managers especially, that focus on variations on the negotiation theme. And, given its importance, negotiation is, increasingly, a subject of research.

The emphasis is hardly surprising given the unproductive and costly effects of conflict, when attempts to negotiate either do not occur or fail when they do and the concomitant recognition that many negotiations fail to maximize potential gain in the outcomes they produce. There is a third, less obvious, point, which takes several forms, but, can be summed up as follows: disputes are not, necessarily, or even often, zero sum situations, but, if they are approached as though they are—that for one to win, another must lose, or, that all parties want the same thing—negotiations can fail to optimize results if, indeed, they succeed at all.

There is a considerable body of research focusing on how conflict is expressed and felt. Taking a look at some of this work can lead to greater understanding, improve negotiating “awareness” and practices, and provide incentives to pursue negotiating opportunities more aggressively, and with greater confidence.

Knowledge, from this research, can enable municipal officials to understand what factors may be at play in their negotiations—what perceptions, for example, may be held (and held against them)—and how to anticipate and manage them. Inequalities may be perpetuated, for example, given institutional culture and practices and unspoken assumptions. These can lead to results that are not fair, are downright discriminatory but also inefficient and economically unsound. The more one knows about the factors affecting negotiations, the effectiveness of certain strategies and tactics, the easier it is to know how to negotiate and to feel comfortable about negotiating.

Practical Insights from Negotiation Research Negotiation advantages often disappear when individuals are provided with the same information about “going rates” for jobs, for example, or costs of products or services, thus making it clear that people should seek out information on how much comparable workers are paid or what benefits and working arrangements they have negotiated or what other municipalities are paying for what product or service.

An informed municipal official is in a better position to negotiate with such information, just as a consumer is in a better position to negotiate a price for a product or service with information, say, on prices for products and services available on the Web before visiting a store. Access to and effective use of information, then, makes for a better negotiator.

Effective framing of negotiations in order to maximize understanding of interests (and positions) and advance optimal solutions cannot be emphasized too much. Awareness of potential barriers to effective negotiation (bias, prejudice, cognitive factors such as being risk averse) improve one’s chances for overcoming them, as does, recognition of the need for objective criteria, standards, perhaps, previous negotiated prices or salaries, sales records, competitors pricing on goods and services, and so forth, to support one’s position. Recognizing the importance of knowing what you’ll do if you do not reach a negotiated solution, on the part of all parties, can significantly intensify commitment to negotiate as it injects a sense of what “the realities are“ into the negotiation dynamic.

The importance of relationships is noteworthy: seeking to preserve and, indeed, to enhance them should influence the approach used in the negotiation as, of course, should the nature of the remedy or outcome sought. Effective relationships are more likely to lead to compliance with agreements and positively influence the quality and pace of their implementation. Communication styles are critical: disclosure, appropriately framed and timed, is crucial. Simply stated, if one doesn’t disclose critical information, how can another know what your interests are, let alone meet them? Efforts to be cooperative but firm and assertive about interests are preferable in problem-solving negotiations and are more likely to uncover “value” to add to the negotiation and produce mutual gains for the parties.

So, in a nutshell, that sums up where we are. New work will continue to add to the present collection of research on negotiation and to our understanding of it. Put to practical use, in training and education programs, in businesses and corporations and public contexts improved negotiating skills and outcomes should be the result.

To be sure, this work makes the case for constructive, interest-based negotiation. And it also suggests, for the purposes of this article, specific applications to the contemporary municipal world.

Problem-solving and Leadership A recent study from Eckerd College’s Management Development Institute  finds that there is a significant link between a person’s ability to resolve conflict effectively and his or her perceived effectiveness as a leader and suitability for promotion.

The sample for the study consisted of 172 employees (90 male, 82 female) from five different types of organizations including two governmental agencies. Roughly half of these people were middle-level managers or higher in their organization; all of them participated in a program on conflict provided to their organization by the Institute, part of a program focusing on workplace conflict. In brief, the results revealed a strong correlation between certain conflict resolution behaviors and perceived effectiveness as a leader and promotion potential. Employees who were perceived as good at creating solutions, expressing emotions, and reaching out were considered more effective.

Destructive behaviors, on the other hand, such as winning at all costs, displaying anger, demeaning others, and retaliating were found to be the worst career advancement and leadership behaviors.

Avoidance behaviors, by the way, were found, by supervisors, to be particularly problematic—a significant finding with respect to negotiation as those who are uncomfortable with negotiating or perceive themselves to be unskilled or ineffective in negotiating often avoid conflict and thus fail to manage differences effectively.

Of particular significance here is the finding regarding improving conflict resolution skills, notably negotiation skills. Improving these behaviors should be seen as an important aspect of leadership development training and if this key area is overlooked, it could have detrimental effects on a person’s chances for promotion in an organization. On the other hand, if conflict resolution training is made part of a larger leadership development program, it can produce favorable results for individual leaders as well as for their organizations. (Craig Runde, New Research: Conflict and Your Career: An Effectiveness Study; New Program Development for the MDI at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.A.; for more information:

Conclusion,For municipal officials, then, the challenge is to take this research to heart, learn from it and develop their own capacities to negotiate and find comfort in the process. Good negotiators, after all, are made, not born. And, effective negotiation and problem-solving skills can advance careers and improve municipal governance, management and workplace dynamics.

A Guide for Effective Negotiating Strategies

Prepare: Gather and organize information for use during the negotiation (and, take stock of your weaknesses, so that you can find ways to deal with them, both in terms of the content of your position and/or the lack of confidence in your skill and approach);

Determine your objective: Be clear, to yourself, about what you must secure from the negotiation, so that you know when you should walk away (to pursue another path that this negotiation isn’t going to provide); prioritize so you know what the deal-breakers are (e.g. know where to compromise; where you have to hold tight);

Pursue your interests not solely your position (and encourage those with whom you’re negotiating to do the same thing).

You’ll have a better feel for what you’re both trying to accomplish and the means to get there. Know the difference between what you say you want and what you need to get;

Consider your options: If you don’t know what your options are, you don’t have any, so, consider carefully what the possibilities may be; analyze the potential of offers that may at least partially meet your goals—they may provide another means to satisfy the interests that you have; generate options with the other party in order to broaden the scope of the negotiations so that there are more items on the table—expanding the pie before you start dividing it;

Seek information: Get to know your negotiating partner’s positions, needs, interests: The more you know about the person with whom you’re negotiating, and what they need to have, the better off you’ll be, especially since you want to be able to minimally satisfy their/his/her interests in order to get your own met as well; otherwise you won’t get a deal, or certainly not one that lasts;

Establish a relationship: Before entering serious negotiations, make a connection with the person with whom you’ll be negotiating to aid communications during the negotiation; negotiations are tense enough, so having a casual dinner or a cup of coffee or simply sharing a good story in a pre-negotiation, informal setting can help set the stage for an improved ‘comfort level’ in the negotiation;

Use objective criteria: In order to establish value (price of a house; car; professional service) use accepted standards (e.g. comparable sales, “blue book” value, CPI, and so forth) so that all parties can rely on a base other than what is supplied by those “at interest” in the negotiation; objective criteria can also help parties feel satisfied with the terms they’ve reached in the negotiation, and, it can also provide focus when talks get emotionally tense;

Create an investment in the negotiation process by agreeing to less- contested or significant items or issues; these terms should be tentative and contingent upon agreement on all issues; progress on some points encourages negotiators to tackle the larger, more contentious issues (with optimism);

Challenge impasse with both process and content: Take a “cooling off” period during which you can re-evaluate where you are and re-examine strategy; think about new approaches to present your needs and new ways to solve the problem your negotiating partner appears to be up against; seek the cause of the stalemate; if you don’t know what it is, you won’t be able to deal with it;

Plan for implementation: All agreements should anticipate what happens next and next after that. Determine what steps will be taken, for example, and when and by whom; determine monitoring and “dispute resolution” mechanisms so that information is accessible and shared and, when problems surface, as inevitably they do, there is a way to deal with them;

Put commitments into writing: Many negotiated agreements have been lost by folks, who in post-negotiation euphoria, walk away with different understandings of what has been agreed to (or have second thoughts). Prepare a “term sheet” that contains the points of agreement. The term sheet will usually require further refinement or elaboration but it confirms the mutual understanding reached in the negotiation and provides a common framework for all participants to work from. All parties to the negotiation, of course, should sign it.

For additional information, visit the website: or contact the author at On site, at the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University, in New Brunswick, is a library containing training and teaching materials and a considerable number of research reports and a series of published journals on negotiation.



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