In the original hit CBS series “Survivor,” 16 participants started out on an island together and, one by one, they voted off their colleagues until only one remained. That “Survivor” won, taking home the $1 million prize.
How did he win? His strategy largely revolved around building a coalition with three other participants.
These four participants initially banded together and agreed to vote as a block. It worked. They all made it to the final four, when the rules of the game broke up the coalition.
Coalitions form a crucial element in almost every multiparty negotiation.
Whether you have countries ganging up on each other in the United Nations, or three people forming a partnership, coalitions make a huge difference.
So how can you effectively negotiate in multiparty contexts?
First, understand that multiparty negotiations, while unique in many ways, do not change the fundamental strategies you should use in all negotiation contexts. In fact, it makes those strategies, and your preparation of them, even more critical.
In every negotiation, and especially in multiparty negotiations, go through my Five Golden Rules. Apply them, though, to all the parties involved. Here’s how this works.
• Golden Rule One: Information is power – so get it. In multiparty negotiations, get as much information as possible about everything and everyone.
Ascertain each party’s goals and interests, and figure out whose goals and interests conflict and whose don’t.
This may be your key to success. How? Your allies – or coalition partners – will be those with whom you share goals and interests. And they will be your allies as long as those interests remain aligned.
The United States wants the United Nations to support its policy against Iraq.
So how does it sign up allies? By emphasizing the risk every country faces from an Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction. This is a shared interest.
• Golden Rule Two: Maximize your leverage. You maximize your leverage in multiparty negotiations by a) evaluating how much all the parties need a deal relative to each other, b) finding out all the parties’ best alternatives to a deal, and c) taking practical steps to increase the value of your alternatives if the deal falls apart.
Holdouts in multiparty negotiations know this well.
Here’s an example. In real estate, developers often set up dummy corporations to separately buy the parcels of land they need for each project. Why?
If a seller finds out a developer is buying all the land in his area, that seller could hold out until the end, when he would likely get a much greater price.
If you own that last parcel and you know the developer really needs it because he can’t complete his development without it, you have great leverage.
• Golden Rule Three: Employ “fair” objective criteria. Objective criteria in the form of independent standards take on added importance in multiparty negotiations.
Why? Peer pressure and precedent. If you can get just one of your counterparts to accept the validity of your standard (like a market value analysis of the product you’re selling, or your expert’s opinion in a lawsuit), it will be easier to get the rest to fall into line.
At that point, peer pressure will come to bear on the rest based on the precedent just set.
I once advised a plaintiff’s lawyer involved in a negotiation with multiple defendants. There, one of the defendants had settled early for a quite substantial sum.
The plaintiff’s lawyer was able to use this precedent – set by the defendants’ former colleague – to justify his fair and reasonable settlement offers to the other defendants.
• Golden Rule Four: Design an offer and concession strategy. Multiparty offer and concession dynamics are complex.
As such, first find out what offer and concession behavior has characterized similar multiparty negotiations in the past, including who has historically made the first offer, why, and how far the parties have moved from start to finish.
Then brainstorm what might occur when the real negotiation begins.
• Golden Rule Five: Control the agenda.. It’s hard to emphasize enough the importance of controlling the agenda in multiparty negotiations.
As the number of parties increase, so does the importance of controlling the agenda. Of course, this does not necessarily mean you should try to overtly control the agenda. Subtlety and silence can work effectively, too.
Ten years ago, I was involved in a seven-party negotiation in which I said virtually nothing. Why? Another party took control of the agenda, and it was a great agenda for me, too. So I just sat back and enjoyed it.
I’ve only watched “Survivor” a few times. Each time I watch it, though, I see the participants forming or breaking coalitions.
The question thus arises: Will the coalition last? And the answer is – it depends on the parties’ personal interests and trustworthiness.
Often, $1 million also rides on this answer.
Published November 1, 2002 The Business Journal