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Finding Common Ground: Collaborative Negotiation and Consensus Building

This module will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Support skillful communication
  • Evaluate and improve relationships and systems
  • Restore hope, trust and a sense of belonging

As conflicts continue to dominate today’s social and political landscapes, how do we reach agreements, whether on single issues or a wide array of issues, with so many different interests? How can we determine and pursue a course of action? Collaborative negotiation, multi-stakeholder engagement, and consensus building are forms of negotiation that are valuable for synchronizing movements, creating coherence, and achieving commonality of purpose among members of diverse teams or groups. These processes reveal what people can and need to learn from each other and how they can cooperate in order to get their needs and interests met.

Social/political organizations often find themselves negotiating everything from time, relationships, and money, to issues of actions, power, equity, and participation. They often require a process that allows the participants to focus on a single issue or conflict, or to bargain for a set of ideals or actions that are critical to their organization or movement. It is often helpful to have an outside mediator/facilitator who is skilled in collaborative negotiation to help with the process.
Negotiating for political and democratic advocacy can take on many forms as well.

Here are some examples:

Accommodative Negotiation (where participants are often friends)

  • The goal is agreement, making concessions, being gentle on both the participants and the problem, making offers, and accepting that one side may lose

Aggressive Negotiation (where participants are adversaries)

  • The goal is victory, demanding concessions, being hard on both the participants and the problem, applying pressure, and demanding that one side wins

Collaborative Negotiation (where participants are the problem solvers)

  • The goal is a wise and just outcome, being gentle on the participants yet hard on the problem, focusing on interests rather than positions, and work towards shared losses/mutual gains

Collaborative Negotiation

There are many steps in building a collaborative negotiation process. Here are a few examples:

  • Conduct a preliminary assessment of the needs and interests of the participants and the organization itself and identify goals for the relationship
  • Establish top priorities; tackle the easy issues first and move to the harder issues
  • Identify interests and develop alternatives to make a proposal acceptable to either side
  • Evaluate the process and provide honest feedback
  • Celebrate successes
  • Make a concerted effort to continue to build positive relationships

Some Do’s and Don'ts

Collaborative negotiating asks that the process involve all who have a stake in the outcome and those who can make decisions and sign off on agreements. They must all be able to negotiate and obtain mutual satisfaction of self-interests for all participants. Consider how unnecessary delays and disruptions can be avoided as well as the consequences of a prolonged dispute or impasse.

  • Listen actively, providing feedback and acknowledging substantive content and any underlying emotional issues
  • Acknowledge the efforts of others when they believe they are being fair and cooperative.
  • Deal with proposals realistically and with appreciation for both sides’ time and efforts.

Collaborative negotiation, with all its benefits, has some downsides. It is important that participants either overestimate or underestimate the opposing group’s animosity or willingness to cooperate. Participants may be overconfident of their role, credibility, competency, and skills. It’s easy to overestimate the merits of one side of the case (usually one’s own). At the same time, participants must not compromise their integrity, principles, values, or interests, while not forgetting to help the opposing party protect their self-interests. Worrying about the end result is often the most difficult impasse. Negotiate what is happening now, yet be aware that the future may bring something entirely different and unexpected.

Multi-Stakeholder Engagement

Multi-stakeholder engagement is very effective in addressing a broad range of issues, including reaching agreement on policies and practices in the political and social justice arenas, the environment, healthcare, public policy, and many others. The goal of these processes is for deeply divided groups to work together on common concerns, thereby minimizing the costs of adversarial conflict.

Typically, organizations/groups/communities make a decision to come together, with the help of a skilled conflict professional, to design and facilitate a process that promotes dialogue, informal or formal civil discourse, respectful and productive communication, problem solving, consensus building, and collaborative negotiation. It is critical that the stakeholders include representatives of those who are most impacted by the problem, those who can make the process work, and those who can prevent it from working.

This  process brings together a representative team of selected participants to design communication, dialogue, negotiation, mediation, and other deliberative systems that will build their capacity to engage constructively. With increasing political and societal polarization, these participants can help to prevent costly conflicts, promote dialogue and negotiation, and reach consensus.

Example of Multi-Stakeholder Engagement Process

Multi-stakeholder engagement enables those involved in the conflict to surface the specific issues at play and understand the unique institutional frameworks, cultures, and intellectual contexts in which issues have arisen, or are likely to arise, and identify the criteria for successful outcomes.

Depending on the complexity of the dispute, conflict professionals and conveners may work in teams of two or more. A typical process looks like this:

  1. Present a multi-stakeholder engagement proposal specific to the issues at hand in expanded form to participants.
  2. Conduct brief interviews - gather data on types of issues, identify potential future participants and gather information and perspectives; provide a non-attributed summary of the interviews to all participants.
  3. Begin gathering committed participants, developing ground rules and points of consensus, and build working relationships.
  4. Facilitate the dialogue between all stakeholder participants; help resolve disagreements and conflicts, expand points of consensus and reach agreement on a comprehensive plan going forward.
  5. Identify and build points of consensus and gradually build trust and communication.
  6. Identify the range of possible agreements that may include pledges, standards of conduct, prevention and intervention strategies, and other procedural options.
  7. Mediate and help manage future conflicts between stakeholder participants.

Consensus Building

When social/political organizations utilize a consensus-driven process for decision-making, they should first have a clear understanding of what consensus is, its value, and how it is best used. Consensus is a willingness to live by the wisdom of a group/team/organization if the decision meets the needs and interests of the group/team/organization. Consensus building is a collaborative group process for making decisions that everyone can support. It is an opportunity for a group to learn about its processes and be able to address past, present and future problems in ways that are agreed upon by the group.

While the use of consensus and consensus building processes vary and are often interdependent on the needs and interests of others who may or may not be involved in the process, here is a way to think of the goals of consensus building:

  • Gives participants an opportunity to choose among several options and allows differences of opinion to surface; each participant agrees that they have had sufficient opportunity to influence the decision.
  • Ensures an inclusive process and one where everyone has an equal voice.
  • Promotes understanding and ownership while building unity and common direction.
  • Encourages an environment where the thinking lends itself to’ We all Win’ rather than ‘Someone wins/Others must sacrifice’ or ‘We win/You lose’.
  • All group members agree to support the decision even though it may not be everyone’s first choice.
  • Everyone is committed to the decision as though it were the first choice of all group members.

While the goals of consensus are laudable, in reality, most of us have experienced roadblocks in consensus building efforts. Information or participation may be limited. Power dynamics interfere with the process. Blame, apathy, defensiveness, and excuses dominate the conversations. And the end result may be public compliance yet private defiance. Yet when groups can have a clearer understanding of what consensus building really means, agree to and embrace the value of consensus building, and respectfully hold each other responsible for the process and the outcome, consensus, the group will become more unified and ready to act together.

Summary

Collaborative negotiation, multi-stakeholder engagement, and consensus building processes are valuable tools and supports for building conflict capacity. A key element that must not be overlooked as social/political organizations search for common ground and actions is the importance of building trust within and between staff, volunteers, communities, and partners.

Be honest, authentic, respectful, dependable, and open. Provide clarity about boundaries, limitations, and possibilities. Stay consistent and congruent while at the same time, be curious and willing to change your mind without regret. Be empathetic and compassionate; apologize if you need to. Embody inclusivity and equality. Act based on vision and values, and be willing to sacrifice something that is important to you for the common good.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to consider when designing, facilitating, or participating in collaborative negotiation, multi-stakeholder engagement, and consensus building dialogue and decision-making process

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • Is it possible to express differences in ways that are authentic yet do not harm others?
  • What does the phrase, ‘search for common ground,’ mean to me?
  • How do I develop the practice of listening actively, deeply, and in ways that I can then change my mind?
  • Do I have enough knowledge, support, and training to understand what it means to be inclusive and equitable?
  • How willing am I to take responsibility for process and content in situations that are driven by a need to resolve or transform conflicts?
  • Do I value building trust within the group and/or with groups that organize and function outside the group?

Here are some traps to avoid

  • Rushing decisions and ‘vote’ before you have to
  • Withholding information or acting unilaterally can be very damaging to the process
  • Expecting people to compromise over principles

Our team of highly skilled conflict professionals can support you.

For more information and support, or if you are interested in becoming a member of the DPACE team, please contact Wendy Wood, Project Director: dpace@mediatorsbeyondborders.org