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The Negotiation Table: Full Course, Main Dish or Dessert?


This article outlines the importance of a focus on time in a negotiation and the underlying significance of negotiation to the growth and/or success of enterprises.

Author: Victor Kimang’a

Negotiation is an age-old tradition

Negotiation is broadly defined as a technique through which parties reach an agreement about differences. It is a method whereby an understanding is reached while refraining from controversy. William Ury, Bruce Patton and Roger Fisher, in their pioneering publication on negotiating back in the 1980´s, define negotiating as a “back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.”[1]

Negotiation has been and still is a fundamental part of our existence as human beings. Essentially, there are two forms of negotiation: on the one hand, the elaborate negotiations, for instance, agreeing on contract terms with a vendor. On the other hand, there are the casual everyday discussions which are more frequent, for instance, settling domestic disputes or haggling at the local butchery.

‘Although time is essential in negotiations, we need to consider the complexities and unique traits presented by different situations. Ultimately, these differences may justify the need for varying negotiation timelines sometimes marked with a degree of uncertainty’.

Increasingly, more institutions continue to embrace the efficiencies brought by impactful negotiations. Nevertheless, even the most impactful negotiations are marked by extended procrastinations, insufficient preparation and drive.

This is a significant pitfall and risks eroding gains made during negotiations (or negotiation processes), since the delays, in most cases, lead the parties involved to become weary and more adversarial.

This brings us to what should be the bedrock of a negotiation process. Time is one of the most critical resources in a negotiation process and this is exactly why it should be firmly embedded in the fabric of the negotiation.

Traditionally, negotiation is broken down into five phases:  Preparation, Encounter, Debate, Closing and Implementation. [2] These phases are usually followed chronologically and include lengthy procedures before completion and moving on to the next phase.

An alternative approach to this is to consider the negotiation table in the same light as a three-course dinner: starter, main dish and dessert. People have different options and can choose to have all of them or restrict themselves to either of the choices at hand. There are no hard rules in dining, the overall objective being to enjoy the experience and fulfill individual nutrition requirements.

Likewise, a similar approach should be adopted for negotiation, variating from the traditional norms and allowing more flexibility to enable quick delivery of results. However, this does not diminish the need for preliminary informative steps but outlines the necessity to expedite the negotiation process spending more time and energy on the ‘main dish’. The distinction is not only around how much time the negotiation or dishes take but “how time passes for the negotiators”. Time has different implications for the negotiators, therefore, in every negotiation, the key question to ask is: Who wins and who loses as time passes? 

The passing of time moderates the demands made by the negotiators and has positive effects on reaching an agreement.

Under the pressure of time, negotiators tend to reduce their level of aspiration and make bigger, more frequent concessions, although bearing the risk of reducing any chance to obtain joint benefits.

Time not only influences concessions, demands and aspirations, but is also critical for the moment at which the agreement is reached. When proposed too late, an agreement may fail to be taken into consideration if it deepens the lack of consensus. When proposed too soon, the proposal may be rejected because the negotiators’ expectations are still too high. Choosing the right time for the closing is critical for the negotiators.


A new era for negotiation

A good example is the protracted negotiations pitting the United Kingdom versus the European Union in relation to the former’s withdrawal from the European Union. [3] The now infamous ‘Brexit Negotiations’ that have been ongoing for more than 2 years are a classic example of the pitfalls of extended negotiations.  Although we must appreciate the complexities involved in this case, the drawbacks of the lengthy negotiations are evident particularly with growing dissent on both sides.

Another example of potentially lengthy negotiations are the Global trade negotiations involving United States, China and the European Union. These trade negotiations are ongoing and have a huge impact on many businesses across the globe. The lack of certainty as to a desired outcome is negatively impacting businesses particularly from a planning perspective. [4]

Increasingly, organizations and legislative bodies across the world have adopted the use of negotiations amongst other interactive methods to resolve disputes. This demonstrates the importance of negotiation in shaping the future of various sectors of the economy. Therefore, it is beneficial for all parties involved to ensure that the objectives of the negotiation are met in a timely manner.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, although time is essential in negotiations, we need to consider the complexities and unique traits presented by different situations. Ultimately, these differences may justify the need for varying timelines sometimes marked with a degree of uncertainty.

The challenge for the parties involved in a negotiation is working towards a middle ground from which the path to the conclusion of the negotiations is well lit.


Author: Victor Kimang’a, currently an LLM Candidate at IE Law School (Master in Global Taxation) in Madrid. He has prior experience having worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers Indirect Taxes Department.


[1] Shonk, K. (2018). What is Negotiation? Learn the building blocks of indispensable negotiation business skills. [Blog] Program on Negotiation – Harvard Law School.
[2] Watershedassociates.com. (2018). 5 Stages of Negotiation Process | Watershed Associates.
[3] Nasher, J. (2018). Top 10 Negotiations of 2018. forbes.com.
[4] Ft.com. (2018). US needs multilateralism as much as its partners | Financial Times.