Stay cool in the pressure cooker

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/05/2003

Strange things happen in the midst of collective bargaining.

It’s a high stakes game where the rules are often unclear and played out mostly in a strange double speak. People usually say exactly what they mean but seldom mean exactly what they say. Hidden meanings and strategically placed unspoken messages abound.

It can all get so confusing, the players sometimes outwit themselves, says Ron Franklin, a Calgary-based labour relations consultant with more than 40 years of bargaining experience.

That’s why it’s essential you’re clear on your objectives going in, he says. Once you get in there and things get all stirred up, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

People often go to the table with demands that bare little resemblance to actual objectives. These fictitious demands are of course what is given up to get what you really want. But sometimes people forget that and get married to their positions, he says. They make an offer and then won’t budge.

“As you defend and start to speak to your proposals, you actually convince yourself,” he says. It’s always good to keep the senior negotiator slightly removed from the hard bargaining. “He can go back to the list of objectives and say, ‘We didn’t want this, why do you want it now?’”

Similarly a good senior negotiator has to manage the reactions of his team. Sometimes when the bargaining team looks at the proposals from the other side, “the temperature in the room rises about 10 degrees, they become furious,” says Franklin. “I like to have an exchange without a meeting — I’ll hand you my envelope with my proposals and you hand me yours, we will not deal with them at this exchange. When my constituents look at those proposals, I like to be able to talk them down.”

In talking with labour relations experts who have been through collective bargaining, the message is heard time and again that managing emotions is one of the keys to successful collective bargaining (see “Table talk” under related links below).

More often than not, breakdowns in collective bargaining impasses are more the product of personal conflict than any issues on the table, says Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers.

The people who sit around the collective bargaining table are usually highly competent negotiators — calm, dispassionate, composed and well-prepared, always well-prepared, say seasoned negotiators.

But emotions bubble just below the surface and you never really know when they will boil over. Pressure points can sometimes be identified and even strategically manipulated but they shift with the moods of the people in the room.

It is the team that does the best job of keeping those emotions in check that will come out with the better deal. When things get personal, when emotions take over, that’s when trouble arises.

Some of the basics of collective bargaining can be taught but at a certain point it is only a keen awareness of self and others — what provokes you and the people in the room and why — that allows successful negotiators to understand what is going on in the room, to cope with the ambiguity of hidden meanings and see the whole game unfolding before them. Some people can do it, others can not.

“There are people who talk about collective bargaining as being very stressful and I think those people who are successful at it don’t find it damagingly stressful — it shouldn’t be ulcer-inducing stressful,” says Franklin.

In his younger days, he tried the theatrics, the feigned anger, but not anymore. Emotion has no place at the table, he says. It almost always leads to mistakes.

There is no question the basic relationship between the two sides is inherently adversarial, but when emotions can be kept in check a delicate sort of trust can be built. There is predictability and understanding of one another’s actions, which makes it easier to get a deal done.

However, no matter how much you try to keep that in mind, in an instant, emotions can take over and the trust that was built can be destroyed.

Franklin recalls one round of bargaining where he had an excellent working relationship with the union negotiator. He had worked with him before and they got along well personally. “One day I was reviewing the settlement from the previous day and he said, ‘I didn’t agree with that.’ And you could feel the chill in the room. I was having real trouble, there were emotions and I was bordering on anger and I was disappointed.”

Fortunately his union counterpart was able to read the moment and bailed them out, says Franklin. “He looked at me and said I think we’ll take a break.” He went and caucused with his team and they confirmed that in fact they had agreed on that issue the day before. It was the union negotiator’s mistake but his ability to read a delicate moment and respond quickly saved the minor mistake from escalating into something much bigger and much more damaging.

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