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Rubbing Your Nose Off At The Grindstone

The last year and a half has been a stomach churning experience, watching America negotiate its way through the war on terror and the international ordeal of what to do with Iraq. I have not slept well. It’s been a nice (if not necessary) historic reminder of brinkmanship diplomacy during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. As a mediator and student of negotiation, I have asked myself the following question repeatedly, is there any knowledge negotiators, who bargain for a living, can learn from this situation? The answer is in the headlines, understand the effectiveness of positional bargaining over time.

What is positional bargaining? Positional bargaining is solution-centered negotiation. By offering one solution to a problem, the bargainer’s role becomes convincing their constituency (your stakeholders) that it is the right solution and no further negotiation is needed. Communication and information systems are closed for the bargainer/organizational leader to resolve the conflict. This strategy is the opposite of interest based negotiation where positions are put initially aside, and the negotiator goes to their constituency and builds agreement by focusing upon needs and interests.

The advantages of positional bargaining

Positional bargaining can be an effective strategy during a time sensitive crisis. September 11th was an example of this, case and point. Within a time sensitive national crisis, the Bush Administration set out an agenda, stood by it, and with internal and external partners made global security changes. Due to the nature of the crisis, international and local constituencies turned to leadership and the Bush Administration’s immediate solutions were effective, deserving the strong local and international support it received.

Positional bargaining proved to be an effective short-term solution to a crisis. Why? Bush met his constituency’s need for security, leadership, and a solution through direct positional bargaining.

The disadvantages of positional bargaining

Positional bargaining loses its advantages over time. On December 4th 2001, the Bush Administration stated that Saddam Hussein must be removed from power and the US was preparing to go to war to do so. On January 21st, 2003 the Bush Administration stated that Saddam Hussein must be removed from power and the US was preparing to go to war to do so. To the international audience there has been no perceived negotiating movement.

What is the difference between 12/4/01 and 1/21/03? Positional bargaining over the long term has significantly decreased the Bush Administration’s international support. Inflexibility is inherent to an effective positional bargaining strategy. As time passes closed information, communication, and decision making systems decrease systemic buy in by your constituency. The active discouragement of interest based participation with his global constituency has, over the 15 months, dismantled any stakeholders sense of two-way information sharing or communication. This lack of a negotiation process has damaged relationships and inevitably discredited the organizational leader’s position. With no opportunity to collaborate or participate in the Administration’s position, internal and external partners have been provided with only one alternative, agree or we’ll do it anyway.

As the time of the negotiation/conflict increases without being provided with an opportunity to participate in the process, the system stakeholders’ likelihood to abstain and dispute increases. The positional bargainer has lost 2/3rds of his or her original support and alienated himself from his constituency.

The reality of positional bargaining

Positional bargaining only works in the short term, during times of crisis, and when it meets the needs of the bargainers constituency. Hard positional bargaining beyond the system’s perceived crisis timeframe damages relationships and alienates the bargainer. Organizations and systems continue to move towards democratic, interest based, collaborative ideals where participants expect participation (regardless of policy or rules). Interest based negotiations do take more time initially, but over the long term time is saved through built trust that needs will be heard and negotiated upon.

What’s the negotiation future of the conflict with Iraq? The Bush Administration will most likely continue to lose credibility and strain relationships if they continue with unilateral negotiations. No matter how reasonable the solution may be to them, time will wear away stakeholder buy in if their constituency is denied participation.

Within these economic and politically uncertain times, this may be an important lesson to be remembered for the negotiator. Positional bargaining works, but only within a set time frame and if it meets the needs of your stakeholders. You can put your nose to the grindstone to resolve a crisis, but if you hold it there too long… it could rub off.


Wesley S. Helms

Wesley Helms is a mediator, trainer, facilitator and designer of dispute resolution systems. By using his background in alternative dispute resolution, dispute analysis, and information systems, he has worked to streamline private sector, public sector, and international dispute resolution processes for issues ranging from privacy and financial services claims, to… MORE >

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