Centre Européen de la Négociation - Negotiation Skills Training - Consulting & Coaching

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State/Business/Trade Unions: all in the same boat

By Michel Ghazal

Wishing to introduce a dose of merit into their remuneration system, whose increases were mainly based on seniority, the negotiations opened by the management and staff representatives of this client company reached an impasse. The unions totally rejected this change.


What are you saying? Teach them to negotiate better!


The HR manager who had approached me said: " Come and help us beat the unions ".

- " I can see where your problem lies "was my reply. " For you, negotiation is a confrontation designed to get the better of the other party. If you really want me to help you, I suggest another solution: joint management/trade union training.This will enable you to negotiate better together to resolve your common problem. ".

- " You want me to give them weapons to beat me with? "he replied instantly.

To which I replied:

- "  Quite the opposite. For me, negotiation is like a dance, a waltz or a tango. A couple will dance better if both parties learn it and practise together. A training course introducing you to the same approach to negotiation will therefore give you a better chance of reaching a mutually satisfactory, workable and lasting agreement. ".

-" Let's just say that you've convinced me, but you'll have a hard time getting the trade unions to accept the idea. "says my client.

-" Convincing someone to come to the negotiating table is a negotiation in itself. Let me talk to them ".

This was done through individual meetings with the 5 OS represented in this mutual bank. Once their motivation to take part in this unprecedented experiment began to be felt, resistance soon began to appear:

-" You want the grassroots to say that we're making a pact with employers "they said together.

-To which I replied: " What risk are you taking? If after the training you still feel satisfied with your current practices, don't change them. The only risk you'll be taking is that you'll learn something! ".

That was in 1986. And by taking the time needed to prepare and reassure both parties, I was able to achieve a first in France: getting management and unions around the same table to train them together in a common approach where all parties can win. I had learnt this method in 1983 at Harvard with Roger Fisher, who trusted me to develop it in France. It's called "Interest-Based Negotiation".[1]Since then, it has been known as the "Mutual Gains Strategy" or "Interest-Based Negotiation". In conflict situations, it helps the parties to discover that the other is not an adversary to be beaten and that negotiation is not to be confused with a war that justifies the use of every trick in the book. At the time, it was truly revolutionary. 

Since then, this experiment has been repeated in several companies, but not without encountering numerous categorical refusals. Its application has also been extended to joint training of two conflicting departments within the same company, or to relations between the sales and purchasing departments of two different companies. A more acceptable variant has sometimes been implemented: training the two parties separately and in parallel.


Decision-making methods in the face of this crisis: adversaries or partners?


As we emerge from this period of confinement, a second wave is shaping up to be particularly catastrophic: the economic and social crisis. The stakes are high: saving a large number of companies from bankruptcy, whose survival is hanging by a thread, and preserving the jobs of tens of thousands of employees. To adapt to the new context, limit the damage and try to bounce back, companies will have to engage in multiple collective negotiations if they are to succeed in transforming themselves. And none of the social partners can say "I can't do it! Fortunately, the hole is on their side and not mine. ". But, as the past few weeks have shown with the examples of Amazon and Renault, this is not always obvious, far from it. 

Unfortunately, for some people in France, the ideology of negotiation still places it under the aegis of adversarial conflict and the test of strength. For others, there is still a negative perception of negotiation, leading them to avoid it at all costs. For the latter, negotiation is seen as a reduction of power and a sign of weakness. So much so that the words negotiate and negotiation are banned from their vocabulary in favour of others such as consultation, consultation or dialogue. These are reminders of a monarchical culture that should no longer exist. 

Whether we are talking about certain trade unions that swear by class warfare or private or political leaders who still favour top-down unilateral decision-making, all the players would be well advised to re-evaluate their decision-making methods in order to deal with the current serious crisis that promises a disastrous future. 

In the face of this ordeal, unprecedented in its scale, different choices can be made to deal with it. This could be the choice that Le Monde has entitled " Trade unions see social dialogue as a collateral victim of the crisis ". In practical terms, the French government has just issued an order to shorten the consultation period with employee representatives, justified by the need to encourage a rapid resumption of activity at La Poste. It has even partially suspended them in certain cases, granting itself the right to take unilateral decisions without going through the consultation or negotiation stages. 

Negotiation allows for the exchange and transparency of information, the clarification of the objective criteria determining a given choice and, of course, a confrontation of points of view and mutual perceptions. No single party holds the truth and can impose it. Only a decision based on these criteria can lead to applicable and sustainable choices. I therefore find the Government's decision regrettable. But to be fair, apart from the lack of willingness to negotiate, perhaps it is also motivated by the observation that there is a deficit in the negotiating capacity of certain interlocutors. 

There is a practical way of developing the negotiating skills of all the social partners: joint training in collective bargaining. But this is easier said than done.


An innovative method: joint training in interest-based negotiation


Negotiation practices and approaches vary widely. There are strictly competitive methods based on war and adversarialism; others consider it to be a simple communication approach; some are convinced that by being cooperative it is always possible to act in a Win-Win manner; finally, there is an approach which advocates a balance between competition and cooperation: "Interest-based Negotiation". However, as I said at the beginning of this article, two conditions are necessary to increase the chances of success:

  1. Train all the social partners to "Interest-Based Negotiation". Why is this? Achieving a concrete change in the way people deal with their problems and differences together requires a change in the way they think about the nature of negotiation, about themselves and about each other. Now, with the interest-based negotiation method, there is no advice that I would give to one of the parties that I could not give to the others. Let me remind you that the objective is to reach a mutually beneficial agreement that satisfies the interests of all the parties involved.
  2. Negotiation training must be spouses. Why is this? The simple fact of sitting around the same table to learn overcomes the blocking belief that interests are necessarily in conflict and reinforces the idea that everyone shares common interests. Similarly, getting involved in a shared activity is the surest way of getting to know the other person better and discovering the person behind the role. Finally, this helps to break down the assumption that "the world is as I see it", helps to discover that there are several truths and that differences in perception are one of the roots of the problems encountered.

Limits and conditions for success


Although I am convinced of the relevance of joint training courses in interest-based negotiation, they are not a universal panacea and have a number of limitations. Indeed :

  1. Learning a new method that radically changes the way you do things involves a lot of practice. However, encountering difficulties in the first few attempts can lead to players returning to their previous practices and behaviours, even if they are ineffective. Why? Quite simply because they are more familiar with them and feel more comfortable with them. 
  2. Even if reasoned negotiation encourages creativity and the invention of mutual gains, there are situations where what one gains the other loses.
  3. As long as this new process has not produced good results, it can create distance and generate suspicion on the part of the constituents (employees or management) that the negotiators around the table represent. This means that internal negotiations with one's own side are constantly required.

In conclusion: Increasing the skills of my contacts serves a common interest


In this coming ordeal, finding innovative methods of conflict resolution in industrial relations is crucial. For me, joint training is unquestionably one of these methods. If we consider that all the social partners - Government, Companies, Trade Unions - are in the same boat, then to limit the damage of this economic and social crisis all parties would gain by defending their interests by choosing to act as partners and not as adversaries. To deal with their inevitable differences, rather than locking themselves into confrontation for some or avoiding dialogue for others, I invite them to opt for collective intelligence instead of contempt and infantilisation; for trust rather than mistrust in their relations; for recognition of the other as a legitimate and valid interlocutor rather than an adversary or an enemy. Increasing the negotiating skills of our partners is unquestionably in our common interest. Indeed, if all the parties succeed in finding creative solutions to their problems, this is a shared success. And if they fail, it's still a shared failure. Let's hope that decision-makers on all sides will seize this opportunity and dare to negotiate differently.


[1] Distributed at European Negotiation Centre since 1983, with over 100,000 people trained to date

See also

the European Negotiation Centre, quoted in Le Point.

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