The Life Cycle of a Negotiation

Stage One: Opening Moves

As in many games, the life cycle of a negotiation usually involves three stages. In The first or opening stage, the parties usually exchange initial proposals, discuss the issues in general terms without making any counter proposals and arrange the housekeeping aspects of the negotiation. At a second or third meeting, they will begin to articulate the details of their opposition to the proposals of the other side.

The best results can be achieved if, before any substantive matters are considered, the issue or issues in dispute are clearly defined and the relevant facts gathered and assessed.

Experience demonstrates that even the most sophisticated negotiators frequently have different conceptions of what their dispute is all about. As noted, we are all myopic: we see things from our vantage point without thinking about how they look from the other side’s point of view. It is wise for negotiators and mediators to reflect on how others see them and how they see themselves.

Negotiators also often disagree sharply over the relevant facts even though, as an authority on negotiation once said, You can’t argue about a fact. You can only be ignorant of it.

Stage Two: Threats & Promises

In the second stage the parties usually indicate through words and gestures, or their absence, what it is they are prepared to do to settle the dispute.

A skilled negotiator usually relies on what Professor Schelling refers to as the “exploitation of potential force,” including the use of threats and promises of things to come to influence the course of the negotiations. Threats and promises are words, not deeds. Their value depends on the credibility of the negotiator using them.

Stage Three: The Crunch

The third and final stage in the life cycle of a conflict usually begins with what is sometimes referred to as the crunch, that point in a negotiation when no decision becomes a decision. Up to that point, the negotiation in most cases has consisted mainly of words about what the parties are prepared to do. The crunch is the time for action, for decision making. It is the most decisive point in the negotiations.

John L. Lewis, the skillful leader of the United Mine Workers and founder of the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO), popularized the crunch by regularly threatening no contract, no work at the onset of collective bargaining over the terms of successor agreements and setting a date for cancellation of the contract. Based on past experience, no contract, no work was properly construed by the mine owners as well as the miners as a threat to a strike. It meant that no decision would lead to strike. It put pressure on both sides to translate their words into deeds in order to reach agreement.

A strike cuts two ways. It suspends the company’s business if effective and deprives the employees of pay. It places a heavy burden on both sides to reach an agreement.

The crunch is not a declaration of war; it is a call for decision-making by the appointed deadline. Sometimes, if progress is being made, the disputants will “stop the clock” for a designated period of time. This retains the pressure of the crunch while borrowing time for an additional effort to reach agreement.