Page last updated at 12:52 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 13:52 UK

The subtle art of negotiation

Two men facing each other

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are attempting to hammer out a deal on forming a government. With so much at stake, what are the secrets of successful negotiating that both must follow?

Two sides, facing each other across the table, hoping to strike an agreement. Can they succeed?

Ideally, you're in a stronger position if the other side knows you can let it go
Estate agent Philip Bullman

Whether it is about sharing power, buying a property or simply going shopping, the underlying principles of doing a deal are much the same.

Each participant has their own favoured outcome, their own bottom line and, if they are smart, their own tactics.

Experts in the knack of haggling suggest some of the stages David Cameron and Nick Clegg will have to go through if they want to strike a deal.


A dispute can be won or lost before either side enters the negotiating room, Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at the arbitration service Acas, believes.

"The absolutely key thing is planning and preparation," he says. "You have to establish your musts, your shoulds and your coulds - where is your bottom line, and where are you prepared to settle?"

And, says Sarah Lewis, a business psychologist and managing director of the consultancy Jemstone, understanding the other side's position is equally valuable.

"The people in the room each have a huge audience - they have their constituents, their MPs, their party members," she says. "If you can help the other side meet the needs of their audience, then you're closer to doing a deal that works for both of you."


Philip Bullman has been an estate agent for 22 years and, working in the property hotspot of Wandsworth, south-west London, has learned the value of knowing when to walk away.

"The worst situation for a buyer is when they fall in love with a house and set their heart on having it at all costs," he says.

Lib Dem neotiators David Laws, Danny Alexander, Chris Huhne and Andrew Stunnell
The Lib Dem negotiators could try playing hard to get

"Ideally, you're in a stronger position if the other side knows you can let it go."

Indeed, the side which has least to lose if negotiations break down - or which pretends it has the least to lose - has a stronger hand.

"We call it a Batna - the best alternative to no agreement," says Mr Harwood. In this case, much of the haggling might depend on whether Mr Clegg can convince the Tories he could form a stable government with Labour, and if Mr Cameron is sure his party could govern as a minority.

But conversely, even those in what appears to be a weaker position can use this to their advantage, Sarah Lewis adds - a situation she believes the current prime minister has exploited to the full.

"Gordon Brown told Nick Clegg and David Cameron to take as much time as they needed," she says.

"That was a magnificent bit of negotiating - he was making a statement to Clegg about their future relationship if the deal with Cameron went wrong."


In any negotiation, Mr Bullman believes that establishing a rapport is crucial - especially if, like the Lib Dems and Tories, both sides have to build a working relationship after the deal is done.

Tory negotiators Oliver Letwin, William Hague and George Osborne
Keeping publicity to a minimum is vital to building trust, experts agree

"Give straight answers," he recommends. "There's nothing more likely to put people off than waffling or not knowing what they're talking about.

"People need to feel that you are someone that they can do business with."

In high-profile talks, this very often means ensuring that no details leak out to the press, says Mr Harwood.

"What doesn't help is publicity - you want to keep it to a minimum so people are able to talk freely," he adds.

"It's usually best to work on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."


"Bringing the two sides together often involves splitting the difference," Mr Bullman notes.

"That way, both sides have compromised - the idea is that they trust each other."

Now, of course, Nick Clegg and David Cameron are faced with the task of deciding if they can do just that. Whether it will help them resolve the differences between the parties remains to be seen.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Useful advice (the sort of things that worked well when negotiating a good redundancy settlement with a former employer - they knew I was ready to take them to tribunal and so shelled out to avoid the bad publicity!)... however what these arrogant politicians are forgetting is that we the electorate have already spoken and no 'deal' that does not reflect our wishes is legitimate. It's not 2 independent groups dickering a deal: they are ALL our hirelings.
Megan, Cheshire UK

Oh dear! What an outdated formula. Compromise = failure! Failure of both sides to achieve a positive outcome. So, no satisfaction and therefore no longevity. No way to run a country or anything else for that matter. Better to search for a positive outcome for both sides. The golden rule of successful advocacy. Longevity is assured and a continued participation is supported. Success is the reward. Mind you it requires intelligence and a desire to succeed from both sides. I wonder? Just as well I don't have a vote!
Peter Smith, Montreuil-Bellay, France

Peter Smith - oh dear, what a typically French way of viewing things... It's arrogant in the extreme to think that compromise in a deal is not desirable.
Anon, anon

The obvious problem in this example is of course Proportional Representation. Clegg can't afford to not get a referendum, and Cameron can't afford to give him one. There's little that preparation, not looking keen and establishing trust can do in this example, I'm afraid.
Alex, London

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