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Negotiating is like going into a church - New Frontiers Simon O'Keeffe

Negotiating is like going into a church or temple. It’s different. There are different rules and etiquette. People behave differently once they are there. Like a church, negotiation has a special purpose that makes it different from ordinary, humdrum conversations. Its purpose is to reach an agreement.

But to leave it at that would be like saying that a church’s purpose is to keep out the rain. There’s more to it than that. Done properly, negotiation can deliver a rewarding and enriching experience as well as a good agreement. You can learn more about yourself by reflecting on a negotiation. You can find out more about others in the negotiation and deepen your relationships with them. Negotiation can provide space for great creativity. It’s often a chance to show and receive generosity that will repay itself many times over.

So, back to the church analogy – say a famous cathedral in a foreign city. How many times have we gone in, let the biggest decision be whether to go clockwise or anticlockwise, trudged around and left? I’m not at all religious but I remember once visiting an Armenian Catholic monastery on San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon. Luckily for me, I was with somebody who always prepared well, so I had clear expectations about what I’d see, hear and feel. It was a visit full of wonder and I came away with a new respect for others’ practice of their religion and celebration of their history.

Of course, few of our negotiations bear comparison with visiting San Lazzaro! I don’t want to overplay the comparison. My point is this: you can reap additional rewards from a negotiation if you see it as a process to steadily and deliberately reach an agreement. The better you become at working the process, the more time you will have to spend on the people involved and on researching and understanding the issues. This is rewarding in and of itself and it will lead to a better agreement and stronger relationships.

The process of negotiation

The process of negotiation that derives from Roger Fisher and William Ury’s seminal Getting to Yes is simple to grasp, even if it’s quite hard to discipline oneself to use it! If you’re facing into a negotiation into which you’re going to commit effort, it’s well worth working on the imperatives of a negotiation that Fisher & Ury put forward. It’s even more worthwhile if it’s a negotiation into which you know the other side is going to commit effort because it helps to ensure that a principled approach will prevail.

The imperatives are:

  • Separate the people from the problem.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Generate a variety of options before deciding what to do.
  • Insist that the result is based on objective criteria.

You can approach this in stages: Analysis, Planning, Discussion, Bargaining and Agreement.


The first stage is Analysis. Spend some time, preferably with others, trying to diagnose the situation. Gather information, organize it, and think about it. Consider the people problems of partisan perceptions, hostile emotions, and unclear communication, as well as to identify your interests and those of the other side. Note options already on the table and identify any criteria already suggested as a basis for agreement options.


During the ensuing planning stage, you deal with the same four elements a second time, adopting a point of view about the people issues and what the real interests at stake are. That forms the basis for productive work to generate additional options and additional criteria for deciding among them.


During the discussion stage, differences in perceptions, feelings of frustration and anger, and difficulties in communication can be acknowledged and addressed. Each side can and should come to understand the interests of the other. Both can then jointly generate options that are mutually advantageous and seek agreement on objective standards for resolving opposed interests.


Then, in the bargaining stage, you can go hard on resolving the opposed interests and yet go easy on the people. By using the give and take of bargaining, you narrow and close the gaps and leave everyone with something.


Finally – and this is often forgotten – it’s essential that you jointly record the agreement reached. All to often, you’ll hear “but I thought you meant…”, so, write it down and agree what’s written!

So, negotiating is like visiting churches. The more you know about them, the easier it is to appreciate the specialness of one you’re visiting this time. Similarly, the better you become at working a negotiation along the lines described here, the more rewarding the process itself will be and the better the agreements you reach will be.

About the author

Simon O'Keeffe New Frontiers programmeSimon O’Keeffe

Simon O’Keeffe has over 20 years’ experience in business strategy and operations. He has been involved in leadership training of New Frontiers participants since 2011… [Read Simon’s profile]