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Competing or Collaborating - That is the question

Negotiation - noun [ C/U ] /nɪˌɡoʊ·ʃiˈeɪ·ʃən/ the process of discussing something with someone in order to reach an agreement; and where fruits and vegetables are used to explain theory

Negotiation – you do it a lot: with friends, family; with your boss on your salary or on what tasks are assigned to you. During the day, we were trained by the Clingendael institute. And we learnt a lot.

The day passed swiftly: there was theory, practice, more theory and finally: a 1 hour multilateral negotiation simulation where each of us got to practice being a country around the table.

But first theory. We learnt first about BATNAS[1], ZOPAS[2] and Anchoring – all key concepts in bringing home the best deal. And about oranges. The example of two sisters and an orange brought so many theories to life: two sisters are arguing over one orange, each wanting it for herself. To put an end to the argument, the mother splits the orange in half: there you have it, the egalitarian 50-50 share. No negotiation, no compromise, no problem, you say? What if there’s more to this story : what if one of the sister actually just wanted the peel, and the other the juice of that orange? This egalitarian splitting excludes the possibility of a win-win situation.

Negotiation is all about context and communication. It is important to understand the positioning (I want the orange) of people by looking them up (what’s the personality of the two sisters?), asking questions on their interests (is it juice? Is it peel?) and by keeping an eye on their needs (one sister lost every battle in her life: she needs this orange for compensation). We learnt about the differences between interests, positions, and needs that people bring to a negotiation; and how they shape discussions that go far beyond oranges and sisters.

What if you are talking on women’s rights in a conservative Muslim country? Thinking about the different layers (positioning, interests and needs – explained to us by using another item from the vegetable basket: the onion) might help you understand what you can discuss with the other party. You cannot negotiate on the existence of God (needs level) but you CAN negotiate on other levels, such as what women freedom can bring to the country (interests, positioning). We learn how to move away from discussions that are on the need level; we learn about spoilers in negotiations and why they do that. The group was excited and invested: it was obvious that our teacher had our full attention.

What we learnt next was about negotiation styles and comfort zones. To the writers of this blog this was quite an eye-opener: you realize your own negotiation comfort zones and the pitfalls that come with it. Being aware of your comfort zone and preferred negotiation style (compete, cooperate, compromise, avoid or accommodate) and using it at the right time helps you to become a good negotiator. We also learnt about the importance of good relationships and how they can affect negotiations styles and comfort zones, by projecting a shadow of the future on the current bargain. Power, importance, and interdependency all influence the negotiator’s attitude. The EU negotiation simulation gave us a glimpse of all that’s intertwined in an international negotiation: it’s (usually) not about bullying everyone – it’s about what you can give and what you can get.

But the most important lesson of the day? Always ask why someone wants an orange. It could solve a problem quickly and it could ease working together.


This blog was written by Alice Autin & Anneleen Hulshof, on the lecture on Negotiation by Christiaan Nelisse from Clingendael.


[1] Best Alternative to the Negotiated Agreement

[2] Zone of Possible Agreement