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Diplomatic Negotiation 
7 Basic Principles

These 7 basic principles always apply

Whether you are negotiating a family dispute or working on a major international treaty, the basic principles of negotiation always apply.


These basics may be expressed in different words during a bilateral business negotiation, in multiparty talks on a local development plan, or in many years of hammering out a new treaty on climate change with close to 200 nations. But apart from the level of complexity and the number of actors, the basic principles still apply. This is because in negotiation, the same fundamental dilemma's always rear their head: is the other party friend or foe? can I trust their information?  should I display openness or play hardball? is this about creating value for me or for both of us? what criteria for dividing the pie are reasonable? how (in)dependent should I remain from my counterpart? and do I push for "my" process or stress a jointly agreed process of negotiation?

Mastering the Art of Negotiation

7 basic principles

The 7 basic principles outlined below are inspired on what experts call the Harvard approach to negotiation (sometimes called Harvard principled negotiation or the Mutual Gains Approach). The name Harvard is a slight misnomer because the research and teaching programs responsible for developing the approach since the 1980s include many different universities (with the program hosted at Harvard Law School). 


Out of the many books on this subject, we recommend Mastering the Art of Negotiation by Geurt Jan de Heus. Due to the fact that this is a virtual (digital) training, we have not included the book in the course. In the next sections, however, we summarize the introduction of seven negotiation principles.

Principle 1: People Before Problems


Dilemma 1: Friend or Foe? How do I perceive my counterpart and vice versa? Do we work in close partnership or does this pose unacceptable risks? Is my counterpart out to deceive me? Or is her impression of my intentions negative in any way? 


For most people the term "diplomatic negotiation" evokes certain images.  But for all the protocol and fanfare of international relations, diplomatic negotiation is carried out between people. And this means that no matter how straightforward or difficult the negotiation puzzle, however large the interests at stake, however central in the limelight of the media, or however secret the channel, the quality of the relationship always matters. Often it is an important indicator as to whether the process stands a chance in the first place.


Excellent negotiators give relationships their own dedicated attention, separating the people from the problem. They do this in preparing for talks, at the table and afterwards. Problems at the table are often partially people problems. Indeed, at times people are the problem entirely. People Before Problems means excellent negotiators start with and prioritise the quality of the relationship, prevent inter-personal hick-ups, and tend to any people issues that may arise despite their best efforts. This means a malfunction in the relationship takes priority over other matters. It is attractive to ignore these malfunctions and somehow work around them: to move to the safe space of substance and take it from there. This approach can create several problems. A mediocre relationship (or worse) provides little basis to create trust. Without trust, parties will be less willing to share information and information is the currency of negotiation.


Without information, it is impossible to clarify interests. As we will see later these steps –building up trust to share information and, in doing so, helping to clarify interests– are vital to arrive at what experts call value creation, exploring options that maximise the interests of all parties at the table.  


People before problems does not mean giving in on substance to curry favours with the other side. On the contrary, treating the relation as a separate factor allows excellent negotiators to closely guard their interests. Once the discussion has moved towards substance, excellent negotiators do not assume relations to be in good shape. Relationship is not a box that is ticked; it is an open space that we continuously invest in (or, in discarding this principle, a space that is continuously ignored!). Excellent negotiators are constantly aware of the quality of the relationship, especially when the going gets tough. They pick up on subtle communication signals and are aware when and how they can address relationship issues constructively.

Morning meeting. Group of six young peop

Principle 2: Trust and Verify

Dilemma 2: Trust or Distrust? Do I take information at face value or do I question everything the other side is putting on the table? Do I opt for trust until proven wrong or vice versa?


Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable to another person or agency. It is based on a positive expectation of the behaviour of the other side. A good relationship provides the basis for trust. And yet, relationship and trust are not one and the same. You may have a great personal relationship with your counterpart and not trust him at the negotiation table because he represents an agency that has not kept its promises in the past. And even if the agency is a credible one, a wide range of unanswered questions about the why, what and how of the negotiation will hamper trust in the process. The second principle of Trust and Verify helps negotiators to create a constructive negotiation process.


Verification means you and the other parties are on the same page with respect to the key why, what, how and who questions of the negotiation. Instead of making assumptions about the answers to these questions we explicitly verify them with the other side. Why have the negotiation in the first place? What is the intention of the parties at the table for the negotiation? What are its key elements (agenda)? How will we go about discussing them and who should be present?  What are the facts on the ground? And if we disagree on the facts, what are ways to resolve such disagreements? The key element of the Trust and Verify principle is the word and instead of either… or. Doing both means not stepping over critical questions while at the same time investing in partnership. One common mistake is to solely focus on verifying information, questioning the information provided by the other side without volunteering information yourself. And the opposite is even more common: skip verification because a lot of personal trust has been established, only to meet surprises caused by “miscommunication” later on.

Principle 3: Focus on Interests

Dilemma 3: Open or Closed Style? Should I use an open style and volunteer a good amount of information to the other side or reveal as little as possible? 


Focus on Interests is the foundation of principled negotiation. It deals with what experts call the negotiator’s dilemma: how much information to provide to the other side. On the one hand we know that sharing more information has the potential to create more value for all; on the other hand, we know that sharing too much will make us vulnerable when it comes to dividing the pie. Clarifying the core interests for two countries negotiating a trade agreement can help advance creative solutions and research trade-offs that make each side better off. But if one side puts its actual red lines on the table on day 1, it may become very hard to defend its interests. Readily offering what is the true minimum that you are willing to accept often means the other side will take advantage of your openness. 


The interests underlying negotiations are often not expressed explicitly. More often, positions are communicated. Though often confused with interests, positions are very different from interests. The difference is best summarized by the Stones’ lyrics You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need (listen below!). Positions are what you want; interests are the need you have to fill. Positions (wants) can be easily recognised: they are distinct singular points on a map of possibilities. When put in a statement, you can either agree or disagree with them. “We want to replace all coal-fired power stations by wind turbines”; “We want teacher salaries to be raised by 7%”; “We want a world without nuclear arms.”  Interests, on the other hand, are not (dis)agreeable as such; they are underlying needs held by one or several parties. “We need our coastal areas to be safe from flooding”; “We need our teachers to work in fair conditions”; “We need a world that is safe from mass destruction”.


Interests come in different types and on some information is more easily shared than on others.


  • Professional interests derive from an organization’s mandate (e.g. “ensure our country's exports are growing rapidly”).

  • Agency interests reflect the needs an organisation has internally (e.g. “more budget", "more influence over another ministry”).

  • Political interests originate from power (e.g. a minister’s wish to satisfy a constituency); and

  • Personal interests reflect an individual’s needs (e.g. the wish to be perceived as successful by the boss).


Apart from these types of interests, negotiators can distinguish between three other overriding categories of interests:


  • Shared interests are interests that make all parties better off when fulfilled. 

  • Party-specific interests are interests that matter for one party but cause no harm or benefit to the other party.

  • Opposing interests are interests that, when fulfilled for one party, by definition hurt the interests of the other party.


Excellent negotiators focus primarily on uncovering the interests at stake. They explicitly avoid starting with positions early on and side-step positional behavior by the other party. In most public service negotiations, eventually positions have to be taken. What solution is optimal to serving your agency’s interests? However, the more open a negotiation process is evolving –in other words: the more interests can be clarified before moving to potential solutions– the more likely it is that a better negotiation result can be achieved and different positions can be bridged.

Principle 4: Invest in Options

Dilemma 4: My or Our Solution? Do I suggest specific and detailed solutions that my side has worked on or do I explore solutions jointly with the other side?


Once interests are clear (or clarified to the maximum extent possible), the central question is: what solution could maximise total value? What combination of measures would satisfy most interests? Invest in Options means a genuine investment is made –in time and other resources- in exploring various potential solutions. It is the opposite of decide, announce and defend (DAD), tabling one specific solution and then move to repeatedly insist it is the best outcome.


It may be crystal clear to you that your solution maximises value for all. But pushing it head on comes with several problems. For starters, it is based on assumptions on how your counterparty connects her interests to practical solutions. Your view of how the world works may well differ very significantly from your counterpart’s view. Second, you may have disregarded key facts in putting together your solution. Your counterparts may significantly improve your idea (or its presentation) before it is tabled as the best solution. Third, throwing out your one solution is equivalent to positional negotiation; it risks inviting pushback only because it is a solution presented by one side (you). This risks turning the negotiation into a question on whose solution (yours or mine?) we should follow rather than what solution is optimal. 

Principle 5: Divide with Reason

Dilemma 5: Objective or Subjective Criteria? Against what standards do I propose or defend a reasonable distribution of benefits, costs and risks? What underpins the word “reasonable”?


Maximising value concerns maximising the range of shared and party-specific interests that the parties hold. Opposing interests are by definition not fully reconcilable; more value for one party automatically means less for the other and vice versa. “Who pays?” is the clearest example of this. But also: “who takes on the financial, political or reputation risks of an agreement?” In diplomacy, there are plenty of examples on opposing interests because more often than not the media zooms in on this part of the negotiation. Will the European Union retain access to British fishing waters or will Britain prevail in curtailing access and improving prospects for its own fishing fleet? Will OPEC countries that suffer from low oil prices see a higher price because supply is cut, or will OPEC competitors for whom volume matters most get their way and have no supply restrictions imposed? Will a group of countries calling for economic sanctions against one country get the sanctions imposed, or will another group with close economic ties prevail and suffice with expressions of concern?


Of course, in many negotiations, the larger the parties have been able to grow the common pie, the easier it is to divide that same pie. And yet, dividing value is what gives negotiation a bad name to many people. The fear of tricks, power play, unfair tactics, and ultimately the fear of giving in too much raises anxiety with negotiators. Divide with Reason means finding a rationale for distributive questions that is rooted in objective criteria. Objective criteria are criteria that are verifiable and that can exist outside the agreement under negotiation. In other words, criteria that are not based on subjective grounds such as an opinion (“because this is fair”), power dynamics (“because I am bigger than you”) or emotion (“I am getting angry”). 


A litmus test for solid objective criteria is: if this agreement was negotiated by other parties and we would be the judge of it, could the proposed division be seen as one that is reasonable? Because negotiators are aware distributive questions will come up, the anxiety around it can manifest itself earlier in the process when the focus should be on value creation. Such a focus negatively affects trust, sharing information and clarifying interests. Every negotiation, however deep and wide the shared interests, foreshadows that ultimately parties have to divide some of the value. 

Principle 6: Mind Power

Dilemma 6: Independent or Dependent? How dependent am I on getting to agreement? How much does an agreement create future dependency? How much effort should I put into being as independent as possible by having a strong alternative?


Mind Power means you are aware of options you and others have to move the negotiation in a certain direction, to assert or block a specific solution. In negotiation parlance, power is often talked about as leverage; the ability of one party to make the other parties move towards its preferred solution.


In negotiation, power is relative; it is expressed as your situation relative to those of the other parties, both at the table and away from it. The single most important source of power is rooted in what is not on the table: the alternative available if there is no agreement (the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement; BATNA). Parties may greatly differ in the alternatives they have. Even if no agreement puts everyone nominally in the same situation (“the problem is unresolved”), the interests of parties are affected very differently. Whether, when and how to assert power yourself, and how to respond to other parties using power is one of the most frequent recurring questions in negotiation. 

Principle 7: Co-own the Process

Dilemma 7: My or Our Process? How much should I insist on my preference for a functioning negotiation process? How do I influence what we talk about when other(s) control the process?


The first five principles are sequential in the sense that they represent the ideal order of a negotiation. This is the order first maximising joint value (enlarging the pie) by focussing on people first, then create the process through verification and trust, followed by clarifying interests and exploring options. Subsequently, the attention moves to dividing value (resolving opposing interests) and the best alternative at hand if no deal can be reached (BATNA).


In reality, virtually no negotiation neatly takes place with this particular order. Especially in diplomacy, with its many rounds and its many layers of talks, the parties move back and forth between relationship, trust, interests, options and alternatives numerous times before coming to an agreement. Parties sometimes intentionally skip one of these areas; at other times they are unaware of their shift. In the middle of a creative brainstorm on a newly found opportunity (principle 4) the conversation may suddenly shift into “who pays the additional costs?” (principle 5). A difficult negotiation round on verifying important facts may suddenly move into relationship terrain: “Your lack of cooperation on sharing information does no justice to our long-standing cooperation”. The 7th principle of Own the Process means that you assume co-responsibility for the negotiation process: the order and steps in the negotiation. This means you are aware of where the conversation is now, and where it should be to be most productive. It also means you are willing to intervene and constructively persuade the other party to pause or shift the conversation elsewhere. And, it means adequate time is spent on preparation and continuous evaluation, topics explored further on.

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