Preparing as a Negotiator

Joshua Weiss

Associate Director, Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Actually, more concretely, a lot of times people go into a process and they're when somebody says what is it that you really want from this process, they're not 100 percent sure they can answer that accurately. You actually have to give time to thinking about what is it that I really actually want to get out of this. I know it sounds strange, but it's true. That applies at every level. But then you also have to think about the context of the negotiation, what's the atmosphere like, and the history between the people, if we're talking about peace agreements. Then power, obviously, how that impacts the situation. What kind of power do you have? Do you have any allies? Do you have coalitions? Are there ways in which you can try to deal with the power imbalance a little bit?

One of the biggest sticking points in peace process negotiations is disarmament and reintegration of soldiers. That is an incredibly difficult task, and one that people are continuing to have a hard time trying to figure out how to do it. In terms of preparation, that might require you to do a lot of studying of a lot of research. You may need to go into depth, and do interviews with soldiers and say, "How can we reintegrate you?" And find out the best ways to get you back into society so that you don't feel the need to pick up the gun, etc.

That's another piece of the preparation, and then also different things like considering race and gender and what all those dynamics have to play, and culture. Have people's cultures been trounced on in the process? Have historical sites been destroyed without knowledge of why they were important? These are the elements that people really need to think about before they get in the room. Once you've done all that about yourself and the dynamics, then you need to start thinking about the other party and how you're going to satisfy the other. Now, that is partly a guessing game, but when we go into processes we have educated guesses about how people will do things, and if you don't have educated guesses, then you're never going to be able to anticipate what's going to happen and ways in which you might respond. I mean, the goal is to try to figure out how you might deal with something that will come up. Sometimes we do this to the point of obsession in fact, to a debilitating point where we don't raise conflicts or issues in conflict because we're so concerned about what the other might say or how they might say it, or what the conflict, you know

Q: Keeping the relationship steady.

A: Yeah, and that absolutely happens too. It's a useful process as long as you channel it in a way that's productive instead of destructive. Most people are afraid to raise it so they don't bring up anything. What I advocate and what I try to counsel people to do is make those fears into a productive kind of thing where you're trying to anticipate what the other wants and needs to get out of this process and how you can help them do that. Instead of one way to do that, if you could think of what the other person's interests are and you know what their BATNA is, and there are five routes that you can come up with in order to help them achieve that, chances are one of those is going to be acceptable to them.

Q: You, the negotiator? Or you, party A talking to party B?

A: Yeah. It's incumbent on you to think about negotiation. It's a fundamental tenet of our field that you can't achieve what you want without the others' help in some way, shape, or form. You have to spend as much time thinking about what the other wants, needs, what their situation is, as you do yours.