Beyond winning and losing: Reframing negotiation as a collaborative journey

Mastering negotiation is essential in both personal and professional settings. While typically perceived as a win-lose battle, reframing negotiation as a collaborative process can allow all parties to reach their desired results.

In a recent Cornell Keynotes webcast, “The Art of Negotiation,” Tarcisio Alvarez-Rivero, a lecturer at Cornell’s Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and retired senior staff member of the United Nations, shared his strategies for successful negotiation, including approaching negotiations with empathy and recognizing the underlying interests of your counterpart.

How can people view negotiations as opportunities for mutual gain instead of confrontations?

“When you shift your view to make negotiation an exercise in cooperation, you get to the point where you understand why the other person is there, what they need and why they need it. Oftentimes, depending on how well you prepare and who the other person you’re talking to is, I recommend telling the other person, ‘I want this because of this.’ Sometimes, a show of vulnerability puts a little bit of onus on the other person to be just as vulnerable and just as honest.

You need to give the other person space to be in their position. It’s okay for them to want what they want for the reason that they want. You’re not there to judge them. You’re there to try to find a way to satisfy your and their respective interests as much as possible. And that’s your purpose in negotiations. It’s not extracting value. It’s you getting value.”

How can you turn an adversary into a partner during negotiations?

“Part of being a good negotiator is having a significant amount of humility. When my U.N. team dispatched me to Germany to ask for funding, my job in that conversation was to – as quickly as possible – establish why the woman in charge of funding gave me an audience. What was the need she was hoping we’d satisfy? After asking her a few questions, I understood that their business model was changing and that they were being encouraged to find more partners in the field as opposed to having their own teams in the field.

Once I realized that she was talking to us to explore if we would be good partners, the conversation shifted. I was no longer looking for money. Now I’m looking for a partner. So, what I chose to talk about from that moment on was completely different from what I prepared. But it was from the point of humility to understand that I wasn’t entitled to have that conversation. She wanted me in the conversation. It was my job to figure out why she wanted me there.”

How can you prepare to negotiate when you share little common ground with the other party?

“Most people have online profiles. At some point, I realized that if I went into people’s – back then, Twitter, now X – or any other account, I could learn a lot about them. In particular, you learn a lot about them in their use of emojis. Emojis tell you whether they like something or they dislike something. They don’t have to write it. They just have to show you the face.

I found that one person I had to negotiate with liked dogs, and I grew up with dogs, so we had something in common. I realized I could now talk to this person at a level that I would otherwise not have known. If the situation got to the point where there was nothing to talk about, I could talk about dogs. So that’s one opportunity that you have to sort of soften the situation.”

How do we account for profound cultural differences among negotiating parties?

“I always recommend creating a persona for the person you’re dealing with. Depending on the culture, you will find that certain things are more or less a pattern. For example, certain cultures are more fixed on timing, right? They want to start at a specific time, finish at a specific time. They want structure in the negotiation. They relish more formal conversation than informal conversation. In some cultures, people like negotiating more in groups or not making decisions immediately. Some people value a handshake more than a written contract. Those things tend to run on a cultural basis.

Now, you’re also talking about biases. And you also understand that certain cultures come with certain sets of biases. It doesn’t mean that you bless the bias. It just means that you accept the fact that you might hear something from that person that sounds like a bias to you. But if you’re prepared to hear it, then you know how you’re going to react to it.”

Why is it important that negotiators view compromise as a last resort?

“Compromise is when we give up 10% and get nothing out of it. If you offer someone a 10% discount and they immediately accept it, you start wondering, ‘Did I give up too fast?’ It is completely unnecessary to compromise as a default position.

If you prepare correctly, make an effort to understand where the other person is and know where you want to be, then there’s a lot you can do to avoid that moment of compromise. Compromise should only occur with full awareness that you did everything you could to avoid that process, but I don’t recommend it.”

How can negotiating parties avoid a power struggle in their conversations?

“I always recommended standing up, getting coffee. I like walking with somebody. I like having a situation where people are not fixed to the ground. They tend to take positions if they’re sitting across the table from you. They don’t take the same position if you’re just talking to them with a coffee in your hand.

Most of the time, I recommend going to a neutral place that’s nice and close to food so that people relax. Then, you can have a different level of conversation. Putting somebody on the defensive by taking them to your own office is probably going to be counterproductive.”

Interested in learning more? Explore Tarcisio Alvarez-Rivero’s Negotiating Policy Solutions course offered by eCornell. For a deeper dive into negotiation skills, consider eCornell’s certificates Persuasive Communication or Negotiation Mastery.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Experience the full Keynote for “The Art of Negotiation” on the eCornell website.