The Big Myth about Multiparty Negotiations

Customary conference room: glassy table, chair, large window

Last weekend, a good friend of mine, who moved across the country several months ago, came back to town for a visit. I hosted a dinner that included her and her family along with her closest local friends and their families. Once I realized the number of people involved–10 adults and six children–I panicked. I had never made dinner for that many people before.

By the end of the event, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only had the dinner gone fine, but it was actually a little easier than hosting just one couple or family. Why? Everyone helped. One couple brought a side dish, another brought a salad, and so on. As I was preparing steaks for the grill, one of the men cheerfully took over and cooked them expertly. When it came time to clean up, many hands made light work.

Of course we had some logistical challenges–we couldn’t all sit together (some sat inside, some out on the deck), and I had to borrow some steak knives to supplement my set. And of course there was the ever-present possibility of spoilers–an adult spilling a drink or a kid throwing projectiles off a balcony or sticking gum in the carpet. (We were lucky this time, but these scenarios have happened before.)

This reminded me of my experiences with mediation and facilitation of two-party versus multiparty negotiations. Like a two-couple dinner, a two-party negotiation sounds a lot cleaner, simpler, and easier. Much of the academic as well as practitioner literature takes that as a given. Yet, in my experience, it is no harder to get consensus in a large group of diverse parties than it is with just two parties to a conflict.

During my doctoral research I looked for studies that actually tested (rather than just theorizing) whether multiparty negotiations (a) took longer or (b) were less likely to reach agreement. There weren’t many. One study found that multilateral negotiations took, on average, just a little bit more time to reach agreement. A big study by my friends at the Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative found that inclusive peace talks, with multiple parties present, seemed just as likely to reach agreement than exclusive, two-party processes.

Why would this be? The answer recalls my dinner party. When you have lots of groups represented at a negotiating table, there are some moderates, and they put pressure on the more extreme parties to come closer to the center and join the consensus. Like my dinner guests who brought dessert or grilled steaks, these negotiators help the mediators or facilitators do their job. When you have only two groups represented at the table, most likely they are stark opponents. They represent opposite poles of the conflict.

Of course, there are logistical challenges, and there is the possibility of spoilers. It is also true that the third party (whatever this role is called–mediator, facilitator, host, special envoy, etc…) needs some facilitation skills. Overall though, we can dispense with the myth that keeping the number of players small makes agreement easier. There may be good reasons for keeping certain people away from the table, but the sheer number of parties is not one of them.

Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading this interesting analysis and the clever link to your party. Indeed larger groups are sometimes a lot easier to handle for the very reasons you mentioned.. I was president of the faculty senate this past year and I thought I was up for a real challenge of trying to be bridge the divide between faculty and administration! Well my year is over and I survived that challenge just fine mainly because of what you mentioned above… You have moderates and you have hardliners and sometimes they neutralize each other and the storm blows over with minor damage… Love your site…

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