Guidelines and Stability of negotiation outcomes

It is clear that when two parties interact, through negotiations, to resolve a conflict, both parties have an idea about what they want to gain from the conflict. Just as clearly, capable negotiations are interested in the stability of the outcome that they jointly shape. If either party or both, settle on a negotiated outcome that they have no reason to regret or resent, they have the incentive to reopen the negotiations, often in a hostile way. If, however, a negotiated outcome endures over time, it is a stable outcome. Stability is not the only feature of successful negotiations, but it is a necessary one.

Linda Putman has distinguished two generic kinds of negotiation processes that differ in their relative prospects for stability. An integrative process is one in which the prospects for both parties’ gains are encouraging. This is often known as a win-win situation. Such integrative processes – that is, those in which the parties attempt to reconcile their stakes are characterized by open, empathetic communications.

Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation is a small company whose negotiations with much larger companies often result in win-win situations. The current trend is for large manufacturers to focus on core products and services. They typically sell off non-core product lines usually to other lager manufacturers. Low volume cast offs, though, tend to fall into the hands of smaller companies, such as Medicis, who, through close attention, enable these product lines to be successful. This is exactly what has happened with the increasingly successful Esoterica line of skin care products, for which Medicis acquired US and Canadian marketing rights Smith Kline Beecham PLC.

A distributive process is one in which each of the parties tends to seek maximum gains and wants to impose maximum losses on the other. This is often known as a win-lose situation. Another description is zero sum – that is, one party’s gain and the other party’s loss and the party’s loss counterbalance, and sum to zero. Such distributive processes, are contentious and unstable processes that can become self perpetuating.

Both integrative and distributive processes are at work in every negotiation. So, rather than two negotiators choosing one kind of process over the other, negotiators involve a tension between the two. Putman says this is healthy because it enables each negotiator to communicate in a way that protects his or her own interests. The trick, of course, is not to destabilize the entire process.

There are times when a negotiator has reason to take an integrative approach by sharing information voluntarily and encouraging the other party to do the same. The past history of a relationship between the parties often has a bearing on this. If the negotiators have built trust through revealing information that each has held in confidence, and if past negotiations have resulted in outcomes satisfactory to both parties, then we might expect them to be more and more forthcoming with information in future negotiations. International diplomacy is one arena where this can happen. Slowly but, surely as relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union improved over the years, arms reduction talks moved forward partly because the parties were telling each other more about their respective positions, concerns and needs.

Sometimes, however a negotiator has reason to take a distributive approach and be selective about revealing information to the other party. Uncertain future prospects for a relationship can be one reason for doing this. Again, international diplomacy is a context where this can happen. Anytime there is a significant change in the government in one nation, officials of other governments temporarily have reason to be wary and guard information accordingly.