Advice for Negotiators: A Conversation with Tim Cullen

After a conversation I had with Tim Cullen MBE, director of the Oxford Programme on Negotiation at the University of Oxford’s the Saïd Business School, I understood that a negotiation process can be divided into three different phases: the preparation, the negotiation itself, and the outcome. The first one includes the time prior to the negotiation in which the negotiator gathers information and identifies interests. Then comes the negotiation, which includes interaction with the counterpart. This stage can last for as long as needed until an agreement is reached. Finally, the outcome is the point where the parties implement the agreement.

To prepare for a negotiation, it is recommended that mediators and negotiators invest a substantial amount of time researching and gathering information. It is worth mentioning that for both parties, the focus of this stage should not only be on gathering information regarding the interests of the other party, but additionally, a negotiator should make sure to be very clear on their own side’s interests. Cullen noted that is surprising the number of times that individuals go into negotiations without knowing their goals. This can usually lead to a disorganised strategy and negotiation, which can result in the process falling apart or not arriving at the best possible agreement. For this reason, it is essential that during the preparation stage, negotiators and mediators determine what they want to get out of this process. This includes differentiating between needs and wants by determining what is a condition without which a deal could not be accepted and what is not essential but would improve the outcome of a deal.

Tim Cullen is Director of the Oxford Programme on Negotiation, which he created in 2003.

During a negotiation, trust is an important element that should be considered by both sides. The lack of it can be devastating to the outcome of the negotiation process. In other words, trust may not be indispensable, but the lack of trust can bring undesired outcomes. A lack of trust causes parties to act in ways that do not foster the development of an agreement. To prevent this, throughout a negotiation, trust should always be based on reciprocity in the form of concessions given by both sides. It is advisable to build trust during a negotiation but to simultaneously remain cautious if deception arises. In this sense, trust in your counterpart but keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Additionally, to have credibility throughout and after a negotiation, a golden rule is never to lie. Similarly, threats should never be used during a negotiation. People often make threats without meaning them and use them as a tool to reinforce a position. A good strategy to handle threats is to make tentative noises about it to try to call the counterpart’s bluff. Furthermore, if your position allows you to walk away in the face of a threat, you might be better off leaving the negotiation altogether.

Once an agreement is reached during a negotiation, one valuable piece of advice is to approach the other side and ask if there is anything that they can think of that would improve the agreement. This is a good strategy that may sometimes give some room to improve the outcome. Often in negotiations, there are multiple stakeholders on both sides and it is crucial that all of them are aware of the situation and are (somewhat) satisfied with the outcome. Another recommendation, especially for commercial negotiations, is to have an agreement on how both sides will handle the media. This media aspect is often overlooked, which can lead to agreements falling apart. Lastly, make sure that what is written on paper in the record of the agreement is what was actually agreed upon. Be meticulous about this and respect the outcomes that resulted from the negotiation.

To summarise, it is always important to adequately prepare for a negotiation and know the other side. However, even more important is to know your own side and determine your interests very clearly in order to allow you to develop an effective strategy. Remember to keep your goals in mind. During a negotiation, it is important to foster trust and work in favour of the best outcome possible. In the face of threats, remember you can always walk out of a negotiation and potentially have a better outcome. Finally, see if there is any possibility of improving the deal and if not, make sure that the agreement reflects everything that was negotiated.

Written by Michael Valdivieso, October 2018

Michael Valdivieso is currently a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics at the MSc in Conflict Studies. He obtained a B.A. in International Relations (Magna Cum Laude) with a minor on Philosophy and Political Science at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador (USFQ). He participated in the National Model United Nations in New York (NMUN-NY) as volunteer staff for four years. Michael did an internship at UNHCR, where he had the opportunity to learn about migration, human mobility, asylum, human rights, and cooperation. Michael founded an International Relations student association at his university in 2014 called Student Committee for International Affairs, where he served as President. With this organization and the support of IAPSS, he organized the first Latin American IAPSS conference in Quito, hosting young scholars and students from over 80 countries. He was the Editor in Chief of “A Different View”, an academic blog published by IAPSS for a year and a half, ending his mandate in September 2016. Additionally, as of December 2015 he serves as a founding member and youth representative at a political think tank managed by Participación Ciudadana, one of the largest NGOs in Ecuador. Michael was also elected as President of the student government for the 2016-2017 period. Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree, Michael worked at USFQ as project coordinator for the institutional development office where he assisted in the management of the relations with corporate partners. At the time of writing, he was doing an internship with the International Mediation Institute, and in June 2018 he served as a Teaching Assistant at the Program on Negotiation in Oxford University. 

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