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Why Tough Negotiations can benefit from Strategic Stakeholder Engagement

How do we craft sustainable agreements when there is so much for so many that hangs in the balance? We need more negotiation architects and better process architecture. The SSE-method offers a way forward.

The SSE-method helps to move from license to operate to license to grow
A license to operate is not enough...

Forty-three years ago the bestseller Getting to Yes changed the way millions of people thought about negotiation. In managing conflict with business partners, colleagues, spouses and children, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury inspired readers to move from negotiation as competition to negotiation as cooperation. From positional bargaining to mutual gains; from win-lose to win-win. Today, Getting to Yes remains the most cited and sold book on negotiation and in four decades an expansive library on negotiation books, films, and podcasts under the rubric of the Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) to negotiation has followed in its footsteps.

The MGA library has mostly focused on settings of two or otherwise limited number of parties, situated around one central negotiation table. Unfortunately, the reality is that for the most profound negotiation challenges we face today, the number of affected parties is considerable. And the number of tables - if they can be called that way - is far more than one. 

This is the case for both global and local challenges. How can we get to yes in climate adaptation, the energy transition, migration policy, ecosystem conservation or artificial intelligence regulation? In regions at risk of flooding, how can we get to a deal while land use and ownership will change drastically to allow for flood protection? In cities, how can we find agreement on a balance between building a new business district, expanding affordable housing or providing affordable inner-city transport? In a neighborhood, how can we get to yes on a new homeless shelter or the expansion of a clinic treating mental illness? 

No matter what side of different debates you find yourself on: all the way from the global to the local, our world faces immense pressures and counter-pressures for change. A variety of stakeholders - citizens, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and politicians - are frantically interacting in this vortex. 

A few trends that require better negotiation architects

As if this is not complex enough, society itself is changing rapidly as well. Below is a selection of mutually reinforcing trends that negotiation architects must deal with today. Together these trends sum up to a central insight: the old ways of dealing with stakeholders are no longer sufficient. 

Citizens -organized or not- are more vocal than ever

Periodic voting is only one of the many channels of stakeholder engagement. Distrust of government, corporations and nonprofits, including research and education organizations, activates large groups of citizens staunchly against -or, less common, in favor of- a certain change. Technology allows controversy to spread with the speed of light and social media platforms favor aggressive debate and confrontation over dialogue and knowledge exchange.  

Stakeholders are better educated and hungry for public data 

The percentage of people with a higher education degree has increased significantly in the last 25 years. In 1998, in OECD countries 13% of the population aged 55-64 had completed tertiary education. In 2022 this had risen to 30%. For the age group 25-34 the share rose from 24% to 47%. Higher education significantly impacts the degree to which stakeholders have access to information and the degree to which they desire and expect to be involved in decision-making. Stakeholders now also have far more access to public data and thanks to artificial intelligence they can rapidly consult multiple sources and educate themselves on technical matters that used to belong to the privileged domain of experts. No wonder these stakeholders increasingly demand a place at the table, or very closely scrutinize those who represent them. 

Stakeholder voices become more powerful, less nuanced and act with lightning speed through the megaphone of social media 

People are less hesitant to say what is on their minds and to call others to account. Technology allows for easily finding like-minded stakeholders and use the strength of numbers to make previously unheard voices heard. Social media brings about the best and worst in its users. People stand up for their views, but often in ways that feed conflict. Social media channels are highways of opinions speeding by, preferring the boldest views over nuanced commentary or open questions. This feeds polarization, divides society and reduces mutual trust. Debate is front and center, but dialogue suffers. Of course this phenomenon complicates the work of negotiators, process facilitators and stakeholder professionals. Finding out what someone thinks is easier, but finding out why someone has this opinion is a far more difficult task. Through social media, citizens or an organized group have direct access to many public officials, both elected politicians and career civil servants. Coping with the pressures from at times intimidating groups of their own citizens is a major challenge. 

No respect by default 

Respect for institutions and the professions associated with them is on the decline. Subject matter experts, (academic) research institutions, judges, legal scholars, law enforcement officers, and even first responder professionals such as ambulance personnel or firefighters have to deal with intimidation and harassment. Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the covid pandemic. Credibility yesterday is no guarantee for respect today. It has to be earned time and again.

(Enforced) transparency 

In many countries, legislation stipulates the right to disclosure of public documents. The basic premise of these laws is that nearly all government information is public, including emails, text messages and draft (internal) reports. In addition, new technology makes large sets of data more accessible. In this way, citizens gain more and deeper insight into the actions of a government and can thus better participate in democracy and decision-making. While submitting a public information request can still be very time-consuming and costly, legally savvy stakeholders know how to obtain virtually every piece of info. 

SSE as a guide to better negotiations

Strategic Stakeholder Engagement (SSE) is a consensus-oriented method of crafting sustainable agreements. Developed by Marc Wesselink in the Netherlands 15 years ago under the Dutch name Strategisch OmgevingsManagement (SOM), the method has helped people working in corporations, civil society organizations and the public sector structure their negotiations. The focus of SSE is on agreements that are ultimately supported by all or the maximum number of parties through a genuine concern for parties’ interests and building mutual trust. The method offers a set of practical steps and instruments to individual professionals, teams, and entire organizations.

The SSE-method consists of four building blocks:

  1. The Mutual Gains Approach as the vision underlying interactions with all parties

  2. The SSE-circle, a step-by-step approach to preparation, strategy, negotiation and implementation

  3. Leadership and skills

  4. Embedding SSE as an organizational competency

The method of Strategic Stakeholder Engagement (SSE) has been making inroads in the Netherlands over the last decade, helping negotiators, stakeholder managers and process facilitators design the processes required to solve tough issues in the energy transition, infrastructure, water management and the protection natural resources. In June 2024, the first English training on SSE takes place in English.


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