Better Deals Through Level II Strategies: Advance Your Interests by Helping to Solve Their Internal Problems

by James K. Sebenius

Overview — While most of us focus on our own interests in negotiation, our counterparts are more likely to say "yes" to a proposal if it meets their interests. Frequently, their interests entail satisfying, or at least not annoying, their "behind the table" constituencies. These may include a boss, board, investor group, spouse, client, union membership, community group, NGO, political party, or the US Senate that must ratify the treaty that negotiators prepare on behalf of the President. The author of this paper argues that a potent barrier to success in negotiation is often the prospect that your or the other side's constituents will reject the deal. While most negotiators are highly sensitive to their own constituencies, they tend to pay far less attention to the other side's constituents: "that's their problem. Let them solve it." Yet one low-cost way for negotiators to advance their own interests can be help the other side solve its internal constituency problems—in a manner consistent with each both side's interests. Sophisticated negotiators have been amazingly inventive in coming up with practical and highly valuable approaches to this often‐unexplored challenge. This paper develops and illustrates several such approaches. Key concepts include:

  • Many negotiators experience the effect of constituencies that must formally or informally approve an agreement.
  • In negotiation, Level II challenges are the other side's internal or "behind-the-table" dilemmas.
  • Even where Level II parties do not have formal ratification power, they may often facilitate the implementation of agreements that they like and effectively block those that they do not.
  • Negotiators can meet their own interests by helping the other side resolve its Level II dilemmas.
  • There are several categories of practical measures that negotiators can use to advance their own interests by focusing on the other side's Level II negotiations.

Author Abstract

Many negotiators have constituencies that must formally or informally approve an agreement. Traditionally, it is the responsibility of each negotiator to manage the internal conflicts and constituencies on his or her own side. Far less familiar are the many valuable ways that one side can meet its own interests by helping the other side with the other's "internal," "behind-the-table," or "Level II" constituency challenges. Sebenius (2013) offered a moderately theoretical treatment of this challenge. Moving from theory to practice and from simple to complex, the present paper builds on that work. It illustrates several classes of practical measures that negotiators can use to advance their own interests by focusing on the other side's Level II negotiations. Beyond tailoring the terms of the deal for this purpose (e.g., with "compensation provisions"), one side can help the other, and vice versa, via a number of devices, alone or in combination. These include a) shaping the form of the agreement (e.g., tacit v. explicit, process v. substantive); b) tailoring the form of the negotiating process itself (to send a useful signal to constituencies); c) avoiding (or making) statements that inflame (or mollify) the other side's internal opponents; d) helping the other side attractively frame the deal for Level II acceptability; e) providing the ingredients for the other side to make an acceptance or even "victory speech" about why saying "yes" to the deal you want is smart and in the other side's interests; f) constructive actions at the bargaining table informed by knowledge of the other side's internal conflicts (e.g., not escalating when the other side mainly speaks for domestic purposes); g) having the first side work with the other side to tacitly coordinate outside pressure on the other side's Level II constituents to accept the deal that the first side prefers; and h) in extraordinary cases, by directly negotiating with one's counterparts to design measures that thwart its Level II opponents.

Paper Information