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A Negotiation Innovation: An intelligent negotiation assistant

I am sitting in a room, negotiating the sale and purchase of assets. The Other party is avoiding making an opening offer and pushes me to propose a price. We take a break. I’m thinking: Which is likely to be more favorable to me: put a figure on the table, or insist the Other does so first? If the Other proposes the price, it will likely be low and I will have to push water uphill. If I go first and pitch it too high, they could go home; too low and I’m losing value. Wait! What do the experts say on first offers and are their views backed up by science? I touch a search engine app and type “negotiation first offers”. Service provider ads and random links appear… articles, blogs, courses, books… scroll further…ah, there’s actually a book called The First Move by Alain Lempereur and Aurélien Colson. Look inside. Seems useful (and, as I discover later, it is!). But I don’t have more than a few minutes to decide how to handle my current quandary. I close down the search. The meeting resumes. I look across the table and silently sigh. I cast wisdom and caution to the wind. I resort to habit, hope and hunch.

There is a profusion of such situations. None of us carry the increasingly sophisticated mass of negotiation knowledge in our heads. Scholars and trainers equip us with established and new theories and techniques, but over time we are likely to forget at least some of what we learned. Or are unable to pick the right behavior at the right moment. Gradually, our negotiating styles can become less fit, even unfit, for purpose. 

Other factors come into play. Negotiation theories often conflict and contradict. Cultures and personalities complicate matters, as do constituency pressures, the level of the stakes, instinct and time pressures. External influences can dramatically impact a negotiation, as can the process we use. We have all been bogged down by impasse, or stuck on the horns of a dilemma, struggling to visualize options, not really identifying all the alternative ways forward. Even if we can work out all our theoretical options, what does the literature teach about their robustness? Are they just someone’s opinion based on little more than random laboratory simulations? Which ones are sustained by field research and empirical analysis? We need a versatile solution, aimed directly at practitioners, that can help negotiators tap into the bottom line of advanced theories at a moment’s notice, inform themselves quickly, and make the best possible choices at the right time. Is such a solution possible?

A practitioners vision

In’s recent series “Seven Keys To Unlock Mediation’s Golden Age” Michael McIlwrath, a Vice President of international energy technology group Baker Hughes Company, urged us to work together to “Develop a Negotiation Index”. By “index”, he did not mean a list or bibliography. Rather: a universally accessible reference of negotiation techniques and situations that classifies empirical evidence that may be more effective in given situations. Negotiators tend to adopt techniques drawn from their early training, what they once found to have been effective, or their own personal stylesWith an organized classification of negotiation techniques and situations, parties and mediators could more easily make use of approaches with which they lack familiarity or comfort, but that may be more effective for their situation… And it could also spur the negotiation field to develop and test new techniques.

This negotiation “searchlight” vision stirred much excitement. Could data processing, advanced search engines, artificial intelligence and natural language user interface technology combine to help capture, process and interpret the cascade of complex and contradictory negotiation data, and metamorphose it into concise, quick-to-grasp information that negotiators and mediators could instantly access at the coalface? Surely, yes, but it will involve a collaborative effort by a large cohort of experts, and be superbly managed and well-funded.

For the end product to become widely available, user access charges will have to be low. Financiers, such as venture capital firms, are unlikely to fund the development and maintenance costs unless the financial return on their investment is high. So those costs will need to be funded elsewhere, by grants from public sources and from users, patrons and sponsors who share the vision of improving negotiation skills and outcomes via a voice-activated tool that negotiators and mediators worldwide can access on the go and in their chosen languages. It will be capable of searching, finding and delivering the exact information they need, instantly. Wow!

Building the Intelligent Negotiation Assistant

Voice-controlled digital assistants using natural language processing and understanding, supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning, are among the fastest-developing technologies. These platforms can draw on a huge number of data sources. They can analyze, contextualize and interpret complex verbal or written questions and instantly respond in voice or in print in summarized ways, for example prompting different possibilities or linking to sources, or providing straightforward answers. As outputs are only ever as good as inputs, the effort needed to gather and organize negotiation knowledge to enable an Intelligent Negotiation Assistant to work really well is considerable, even formidable.

But valuable steps are already being taken, even if not with an Intelligent Negotiation Assistant in mind. One example is the Negotiation Data Repository (NDR) recently announced by the Harvard Program on Negotiation (PoN). The PoN has extended an invitation to researchers, scholars and others to upload results from qualitative and quantitative negotiation and conflict resolution lab simulations, field surveys, negotiation transcripts, interview transcripts, and other relevant data objects”. Another, sector-specific, example is the Bibliography on Investor-State Conciliation and Mediation, an annotated public resource recently published by the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore to help increase knowledge on settling disputes involving investors and Governments. 

These and similar bibliographical datasets will help capture current negotiation and mediation material and data. They deserve to be supported. But building such an Intelligent Negotiation Assistant requires much more data, and the harnessing of AI to the task at hand. 

Many of us have grown accustomed to using digital assistants marketed by Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and other natural language interfaces equipped with the artificial intelligence technology. Given the will, strong collaboration and adequate resources, it is now perfectly feasible to develop an AI tool that turns Michael McIlwrath’s vision into a practical and highly valuable reality.

It also needs energy, organization, funding and the most expert human capital in the field…

Making the Intelligent Negotiation Assistant a reality

Last year, steps were taken by the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada and the Vlerick Business School in Belgium to create a new, not-for-profit initiative in Canada called the  Institute for Negotiation Innovation – Institut de Négociation et d’Innovation (INI). The core purpose of the INI is to promote and enable the development of innovative negotiation tools based on knowledge derived from a credible body of negotiation science in order to make those tools freely available

Sherbrooke and Vlerick are inviting negotiation scholars, trainers, researchers, practitioners, Governments and others, throughout the world, to collaborate in this project. They will include experts in AI, knowledge management and dispute resolution. Negotiation differs across sectors, and there will be sector-specific hubs including business/commercial, financial, construction, multilateral/diplomacy, military, crisis, sports, labor, family, investor-State, environmental, urban conflict, organizational/ombudsman, aviation, peacekeeping, and others. To improve data quality, source materials will have to be researched, analyzed and interpreted, and some empirical research will have to be started. The project also plans to harvest the tacit knowledge of practitioners in order to extract generally accepted principles in negotiation.  

As a project of this scale and complexity requires considerable long-term financing, the INI is actively applying to a range of fund providers and sponsors to help build the Intelligent Negotiation Assistant. For example, an application is being made to Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a five-year C$2.5 million Partnership Grant to help realize the Intelligent Negotiation Assistant.

The University of Sherbrooke and the Vlerick Business School welcome experts in negotiation and mediation and related disciplines who would like to contribute expertise to the project. 


Barney Jordaan

Barney Jordaan is Professor of Management Practice: Negotiation, Conflict Management, Mediation at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. He holds a doctorate in law from Stellenbosch University, where he was professor of law until 1997 teaching negotiation and mediation, including at Stellenbosch University Business School and the Graduate School of Business,… MORE >


Michael Leathes

Michael Leathes is a former in-house counsel and in that capacity a frequent user of mediation services. After retiring in 2007, Michael helped establish the International Mediation Institute (IMI) as a charitable institution and served in a pro bono capacity as the first Executive Director of the IMI. He stepped… MORE >


Veronique Fraser

Véronique Fraser, Ph.D. is Vice-Dean in Strategic Development and Professor at the Faculty of Law of the Unviersity of Sherbrooke, Canada. She is a lawyer called to the bars of Québec and Ontario and a certified mediator. She teaches and has published works in the area of dispute prevention and… MORE >

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