Chapter Seven – Negotiations

In most cases your opposition will not completely cave on the spot, giving into your complete demands there and then.  Your efforts are to get to the negotiation table so you can hammer out an agreement.


You are There to Deal

Negotiations are tricky, maybe the hardest part of direct action advocacy.  I have seen more efforts torpedoed at the negotiations than in any other part of this process.  Often our folks feel so deeply about the moral gravity of our positions the idea of compromise seems like an affront.  We have gotten so revved up in our struggle to get to the table we find it hard to step back and let our heads cool off.  Or perhaps we still don’t believe in our power enough to use it as we should to get what we need and want.


Every item is negotiable.  If you don’t believe that, what is the purpose in negotiating?   If you have prepared in advance this will not be a bad thing.  Be ready to listen to alternatives and evaluate if they will get to a workable solution or not.


Use Your Power

You want to negotiate from an ongoing position of power.  That is one of the benefits of the actions that have led up to the negotiations.  You have shown your power and the opposition has seen it enough to agree to sit down to negotiate with you.  ADAPT has used this negotiation strategy many, many times: sometimes surrounding the building where the negotiations are taking place, sometimes holding a bus, sometimes holding a vigil.  The point is to let the other side know they are dealing with a force that will not be swept away.  The strength of ADAPT’s members have taken us to the negotiation table, and have carried us to a successful outcome.   If you are not coming from a position of power you will be more easily overridden, so use the power you have.

You do not want to negotiate with just anyone, which is what the other side will often try and get you to do.  Only negotiate with the decision maker, the power.  Why talk to someone who cannot give you want you want, who cannot commit to an agreement?  There is no reason to do that.  You don’t need to waste your time or theirs.


Rick James in his moutain man hat at the negotiations table with HHS Secretary Donna Shalala

 In our fight to end the institutional bias in Medicaid long term services and supports, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala sat down with ADAPT members including Rick James, who had been stuck in nursing homes and other institutions.  The power of their personal experiences made it hard to wriggle out on commitments and in the end converted her to our side. Photo: Tom Olin

Talk Specifics

When you negotiate, you want to talk about specifics, just as when you cut your issue you want to talk about concrete items.  General discussion, like concerns, will not lead to resolution.  If you are asking for “more money for curb cuts” $5 more is more money, but it won’t get you any more curb cuts.  You want to ask for a specific number of additional curb cuts or a specific additional number of dollars to be earmarked for curb cuts.  Perhaps you will even want to say which locations you want cut.  The more specific your demand, the closer it will be to what you actually want.


To help make your negotiations more specific and concrete you want to frame each demand, each item, so the decision maker will have to respond yes or no.  In this way you can tell if he or she is going to do what you want, or not.  To help keep it simple understand that anything that is not a yes is a no.   There may be real reasons for a no, which you need to hear so you can move to a solution.  However, a common tactic the opposition uses in these situations is to go on and on and on about the demand, explaining this or that special consideration etc., etc. until you have pretty much forgotten what you asked for in the first place or all the time for your meeting is used up.  You don’t have to listen to all that if you simply say something like “so basically you are saying no.” Then, depending on if that issue is a deal breaker or not you can move on to the next issue.


Prioritize Prior 

Prioritize your demands with your group.  Talk it over together.  Some demands will be what we call deal breakers, in other words if they can’t agree to that point there is no purpose in continuing to negotiate.  Some demands are simply more important than others.  However, deciding which points are critical, which are less important is something to do with your people before you go into the negotiations.  If you decide together which are the most important things to get your opposition to agree to and which are less important everyone will understand the basics of what is going to happen.  Developing this together allows everyone to understand each other before hand.  That way your negotiators know which things to push hard for, and how hard and why, and your group will trust that your negotiators are representing them inside the negotiations.  In addition, you won’t leave the room feeling like you did a great job only to find the folks outside wanted something different.


Just Like Grade School, One at a Time

When you negotiate, negotiate one issue at a time.  If you tackle more than one issue at once it is too easy to get confused, and for important pieces to fall through the cracks.  Once we were negotiating with a bank about making loans to people with disabilities.  We got the loan program jumbled in with ways the bank could work with us to promote the loans, jumbled together with ways to learn if there were people who really wanted these kinds of loans.  I left the room with my head spinning, not sure how but knowing deep inside they were never going to do the loan program (which they never did.)  So discuss one subject and come to some kind of resolution: yes or no or acceptable alternate proposal.  Then move on to the next issue.


Research & Prepare

You want to be prepared.  Get ready carefully.  This meeting – each one – is the most important in your campaign.  Each step leads to the next so each is a foundation for your next move, therefore you want to take it very seriously.  Also negotiations are where you most often win what you are going to win.  They are what your organizing is leading up to and so take them seriously.


You want to be familiar with and comfortable using your research, but since this is people power organizing remember you use people.  Real life examples trump statistics, you might want to sprinkle a few statistics here and there, but generally numbers are the enemy’s territory; people’s lives are yours and are in the end more compelling.  Find some real examples of why the issue you bring up is a real life problem, maybe one or two of the people directly affected can be the ones to briefly share their stories, making the issue even more real life.   This also ties in with the idea people act more from emotion than logic.  I cannot tell you how many times having people on long term services and supports has shown even the conservative Texas legislature why consumer control, community based services are the way to go.


That said, you are in a negotiation not a therapy session.  People should briefly tell their stories, not go on and on and on about them.  These stories are for example and to drive home a sharp point.  Go on too long and you lose your audience.  You can role play this until folks are comfortable about what and how they tell their story.   Leave plenty of time to work on what the enemy is going to do about the situation.  


Deadlines Make Good Deals

Set deadlines for completing agreements you reach.  If the Mayor agrees to put in curb cuts, you need to know how many by when or else you may end up with one side of main street with curb cuts and that’s it, or a plan to cut them all within the next two decades (with no funds available after year two).  The tricks and gimmicks of the opposition are abundant when they want or need them to be.


ADAPT folks line a hall of the Rayburn Congressional Building as far as the eye can see

When you know a large group is waiting outside to learn the results of a negotiation, it gives the event a different flavor.  

Photo: Tim Wheat


Be Creative

Think of alternate strategies that will get you where you want to be, alternate ways to accomplish what you need done.  If you can offer alternatives that are acceptable to your group, you will have a stronger negotiation stance because you will not appear too rigid and you will show you are truly looking for a solution.


Practice thinking like your enemy, and seeing the situation from their point of view.  Why do they have it this way?  What would they have against your goals?  What might block them from doing it your way?  If you need to, try and get other people to help with this.  Sometimes you can phrase things using their “language” and that can help them see things your way.  When talking with Republican legislators about long term services and supports, we emphasize family values of keeping the family together, we talk about getting government off our backs and not telling us how to live our lives (ie. consumer control).  We know cost is a big issue so we point out how community services are one half to two thirds the cost of institutional services.  The better you know their arguments, the more likely you can have answers ready to counter them.  If you can eliminate their barriers to doing things your way, it becomes much harder for them to say no.


Role Play, Assign Roles

Even though many of us are uncomfortable with this, it is terribly helpful to role play the negotiation.  This helps you prepare, it helps you get your arguments together and playing the other side helps you think like the opposition.  Others watching can help you sharpen your points, and catch bad habits like agreeing too quickly or whatever your weak spots are, and they can help you come up with ways to avoid these spots and to highlight your strong points.  Generally it helps to relieve the tension negotiation almost always brings out.  Strongly encourage people to take the role play seriously though, it’s easy to slip into bafooning around but that is nowhere near as helpful.


Before you negotiate assign a chief negotiator and support roles.  The chief negotiator leads discussion – he or she does NOT do ALL the talking.  This person will start the introductions (don’t forget to introduce yourselves, it makes you more of an individual, more of an equal player) and introduce the topics as well as stating the final decision on one before moving on to the next.  Support roles can vary but everyone should know their job.  Support people might address one of the demands and lay out the issue for discussion in more detail.  They might give examples from real life of how the issue affects people like them.  They might simply be there to be intimidating, or to perform some specific act, such as interpreting, bursting into tears or storming out of the room on cue.


Don’t Be Too Rigid

Remember, every issue is negotiable – don’t be too rigid.  This can be hard for people power types but remember you want to get things done.  You want to move the ball on down the road.  I am not saying just take whatever they offer, but if you have acceptable alternatives and the first way is not going well, try another.  My way or the highway does not get you that far in most cases.


The Caucus

Clever as you must be if you are interested in community organizing, there will be things that come at you out of left field.  Expect the unexpected.  Here again, using the caucus is extremely helpful.  You don’t want to openly show your hand to the opposition but you can say something like “That is an interesting suggestion.  We need a minute to discuss your suggestion among ourselves” and you can go into the next room and huddle.  Breaking off from the negotiations cannot be done more than once or so, but it gives you a chance to share ideas with your team, to think through what the other side is saying and decide how you want to respond.  If their proposals are way different from what you had anticipated you may need to bring them back to the group at large.


Check Ups Required

You want to be sure that every point you agree on will be followed up.  You do not want to agree something will be completed in a year and then a year later find nothing was done in the interim.  You want to have ways to check on progress along the way and confirm real things are happening.  What are the facts that must be revealed to ensure agreements are being kept?  Maybe the opposition needs to show you the permit they have received to fix the inaccessible restroom.  Maybe they need to prove there is funding available for the project to go forward.


Some kind of monitoring process shows that things are really happening; you can use tours or meetings to go over what is being done.  This is very common in housing construction, where funders will require proof the money is being spent on the building before they will give more funds.  People have obviously been burned in the past for this practice to be so common.  You can have accountability sessions where written information like reports are shared.  When our state began implementing the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, the health and human services agency formed a committee of various stakeholders that would meet every other month to hear what various state agencies were doing and ADAPT made sure that besides our representative on the committee we were in the audience so the bureaucrats knew we were paying attention.


Get it in Writing

On any large agreement, confirmation should be in writing.  Preferably you want a signed agreement, outlining all the commitments made and timeframes for each.  If you cannot get a written agreement from them, an alternative is a letter of confirmation which you write and send to the opposition stating the agreements and documenting the plan; you can then say if we do not receive any written  disagreement from you within the next week we will take that as confirmation of this agreement.   Another alternative is to hold a press conference or some public display in which the enemy states what they are agreeing to in front of witnesses.  You can film this yourselves as a documentation of the agreement, and then keep your recording until they have completed all they agreed to.  When we were negotiation with then House Speaker Newt Gingrich to sponsor our bill (first called CASA, then MiCASSA, then recently the Community Choice Act) we got him to write on a paper napkin what he agreed to do and to sign it.  He did it and we reminded him of his commitment until he eventually lived up to it.


Once you have the monitoring process, you want to keep your folks informed of progress and some should help with the monitoring (checking in on construction, etc.).  By keeping them updated and involved you ensure they will be ready to go back into action if necessary, for example if construction stops or the promised funds are never requested or distributed, both of which have happened to ADAPT at one time or another.


Debrief, Briefly

As with the actions, you will want to debrief and evaluate each negotiation session.  These transactions can always go better and we can all improve as negotiators.  Debrief as soon after the session as possible, while it is still fresh in everyone’s mind.  It doesn’t have to be a marathon slap-down, just a quick assessment and sharing of ideas on how to improve for the next time.  In ADAPT of Texas we usually ask something like “what went well?”, “what could have gone better?” and “what can we do differently next time?”

And in The End…

If they refuse to negotiate or to budge during the negotiations, or they do not follow through you can always go back into battle and tackle them again.  But just getting to the negotiation table is a victory.  From your negotiations, you can gain a better idea of where they are coming from, what they feel to be their weak points and their understanding of your demands.  Then, if you don’t come to an agreement, all you learn can inform you next move, until they learn to bargain in good faith.


Hopefully by now you can anticipate the final step: celebrate the victory.  Even if you did not get everything you wanted, you will have moved your issue forward and that is worth celebrating.



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