People & Skills
Negotiation for the Public Sector – Separate the People from the Problem

We started this series recently and we have commented on the need for negotiation skills amongst many people and areas in public sector organisations. We explained why negotiation is often critically important during the delivery or contract management phase of contracts, where it may not be the procurement professionals who lead – or are even involved at all – in those supplier negotiations.

In the last installment, we looked at the issue of principled negotiation versus bargaining, and explained why the vast majority of important negotiations in the public sector fall into the first category. Principled negotiation is appropriate when there is some sort of “win:win” outcome to the negotiation (but note that doesn’t mean exactly equal “wins”). But in general terms we can grow the size of the cake rather than simply decide how a cake or fixed size is split.

We also said last time that “Getting to Yes”, the book from Fisher and Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project, is still the best introductory book on negotiation that we know. So today let’s start a four-part mini-series looking at the five basic principles they describe in their work, and see how they apply to typical public sector situations. The five are:

– Separate the people from the problem.

– Focus on interests, not positions.

– Invent options for mutual gain.

– Insist on using objective criteria.

– Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)”

Separate the people from the problem – this is not a personal battle between individuals, it is not a duel or a fight to the death, it is about two parties looking for an acceptable solution to a shared problem. As Fischer and Ury say in Getting to Yes ;

“If negotiators view themselves as adversaries in a personal face-to-face confrontation, it is difficult to separate their relationship from the substantive problem.  In that context, anything one negotiator says about the problem seems to be directed personally at the other and is received that way.  Each side tends to become defensive and reactive and to ignore the other side’s legitimate interests altogether”.

So don’t take whatever the supplier says personally, and don’t respond with personal attacks in turn, or feel bad or defensive if you are attacked. This point is one that in our experience public sector staff often struggle with in negotiation situations. Because the public sector tends to value consensus more than private sector firms (it does vary between public sector organizations of course but the generalization is a reasonable one), public sector people are often not used to direct personal challenge or confrontation. So knowing how to handle that sort of approach from the other party is important.

In the public sector, probably more so than the private, you also can get pressure though comments in the negotiation process such as “well, I will have to talk to our MD – she knows your top civil servants / CEO / political leader very well – I’m sure they would be happy with our offer”.

That is attempting to make it personal from another angle but still with an element of personal threat towards the negotiator. A good response might be, “well, I’m sure our CEO and your top people will all want to see a fair agreement here. Don’t you agree?”

Or you might ask “does that mean you don’t have the power to negotiate anything with me”? That puts the other party on the spot – either they confess to being powerless (and if they are, it is better to know that sooner rather than later), or they get back to the real negotiation based on principles, not personal attacks.

Going back to the more general ideas around this point, the key learning here is simply not to take any such behavior to heart. Indeed, if your “opponent” has to attack you personally, that may be a sign that your negotiation position is strong! If necessary, you should explain and be explicit  that this is not a personal argument, it is about two organisations looking to come to a mutually acceptable agreement. If matters get too personal, walk away from the negotiation and re-define the “rules of engagement” before you start again.

In our next article, we will look at the next two key aspects of principled negotiation.