Any time two groups with conflicting interests meet to discuss the issues
between them, they are negotiating. Sometimes the negotiations are explicit;
that is, the groups consciously draw on negotiation strategies. Usually
they are not.
Too often, those
who advocate for change enter into negotiations with only a vague sense
of what they hope to accomplish and how to accomplish it.
Here's how disability activists, parents, and advocates can
by Steven J. Taylor
Center on Human Policy, Syracuse
use negotiations to work for either short-term or long-term change.
change usually means helping one or a small number of people without
radically altering the conditions that create the problems. Some examples
of short-term, limited change are:
access to previously undisclosed information or records;
entry to an institution for monitoring purposes;
for a ramp or arranging for accommodations for an individual; or
a person obtain the services or personal assistance needed to live in
Each of these
short-term changes represents a challenge to the usual policies and practices
of many service systems, but they do not represent broad sweeping reforms.
change involves confronting systemic problems. Architectural barriers,
institutional abuse, segregation -- all are symptomatic of underlying
problems in societal attitudes and human services. In advocating for long-term
change, negotiations should be used together with a larger set of strategies
mapped out beforehand. For instance, negotiating may be used along with
media coverage, investigations, public forums, letter writing campaigns,
formal complaints to oversight agencies, and litigation.
should be determined by the intransigence, or willingness to change, of
the opposing side. As Des Jardins (1971) notes, "If a bureaucrat gives
you what you are entitled to, he is your friend. If he doesn't, he is
your enemy." You will sometimes need to take a "hard line" approach. When
the opposing side actively resists change, you will have to be confrontative.
Often a conciliatory approach will be most effective. For instance, when
the opposition demonstrates willingness to change through its actions,
you can afford to adopt a softer approach. But do not abandon your goals
for the sake of getting along with bureaucrats and officials. As Saul
Alinsky (1972) noted, "Reconciliation means when one side gets the power
and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation."
when to negotiate. Negotiations should be held prior to more
dramatic or public actions, such as press conferences, demonstrations,
or litigation, in order to provide agencies with an opportunity to meet
your demands before you "go public." You should enter into negotiations
when informal approaches fail; for example, when a request for services
has been denied.
the backing of a disability or family group or a coalition of
up the negotiation. Request a meeting in writing. Your letter
should explain the general purpose of the meeting and specify which
agency representatives should attend. Don't give too much information
on your position beforehand. Save your demands and documentation for
the negotiation session. Follow up the letter with a phone call to confirm
the arrangements for the meeting. Be sure to find out which agency representatives
You should only negotiate with persons who have the authority
to make decisions.
if they refuse to meet? First, appeal to their superiors; for
example, state officials when local agency representatives balk at meeting.
Second, go public: hold a press conference or organize a demonstration.
a negotiating team. Any negotiating team should include at least
one person with a disability or a parent, someone knowledgeable about
due process and appeals procedures, and an "expert" in substantive issues
(for example, a person who knows about consumer-directed personal assistance
or architectural accessibility).
for the negotiation:
out a set of strategies. What will you do if the negotiations
do not meet with immediate success?
planning sessions. I dentify the issues, formulate your demands
and fall-back positions, collect the facts, anticipate the negotiation
the negotiation session.
for Effective Negotiation
the negotiation session. You should define the issues.
the agenda. You might even come with a written list of agenda
your seating carefully. Don't let an agency official hide behind
a desk or sit at the head of a table. This gives control over the meeting.
to them as they refer to you. Titles carry authority. Don't let
them call you by your first name if they refer to themselves by their
titles (Mrs., Mr., Ms., Dr.).
your documents, such as letters, to the session.
the meeting. Review the circumstances or case leading to the
meeting, the law, and other facts.
your demands or positions clearly.
your opponents. Never negotiate when you are out-numbered. Leave
if they try to overwhelm you with sheer numbers of people.
a spokesperson. While all members of the negotiating team should
participate in the session, there should only be one person able to
a united front. Make sure that members of the team do not contradict
each other. The opposition will try to use disagreements among your
group to shift attention from their responsibilities.
and cite the facts. Pay attention to officials' defenses or
responses. Challenge them on the facts. Ask for specifics.
the agency and its services (budget, types of programs, etc.).
the law and legal precedents.
familiar with model programs elsewhere.
their philosophy. Point to discrepancies between philosophy
and actual practices. Hold them to what they say.
how people resist change. Anticipate "cool outs" and have your
responses ready. Here are some of the more common "cool outs" used to
talk. "I agree with your philosophy, but. . . " (Challenge them
to act on their beliefs.)
the buck. "I agree with you, but I'm not in a position to make
that decision." (Passing the buck is an age old tactic used to maintain
the status quo. Force them to accept responsibility.)
money game. "We'd like to do what you ask, but we just don't
have the money." (There usually is enough money; it's a matter of priorities.
Further, a lack of money does not excuse violations of people's rights.)
knows best. "Most psychiatrists say that. . . " or "According
to research. . . " (Most policy issues involve basic values and beliefs
and cannot be solved through science or research.)
up. "We have one of the best programs in the country." (Know
the facts about program elsewhere.)
the victim. "These people are too disabled to live in the community."
(Confront them on their backward attitudes. Don't let them blame the
person for the system's failures.)
the tables. "You're too emotional," or "You just have to be
patient." (Don't feel guilty about working for change. Why not feel
emotional and impatient about people's rights?)
assertive, but don't attack people personally. Distinctions between
"good" and "bad" or "friendly" and "unfriendly" officials or professionals
are useless in a negotiating session. What is important is whether they
yield to your demands. Don't be afraid to challenge "nice" people. Don't
hesitate to be conciliatory with "unfriendly" bureaucrats who are forced
to accept your position.
being put on the defensive. Don't beg; services should be available
as a matter of right, not charity. Don't feel guilty; you are only asking
for that to which people are entitled. Refuse to discuss your own past
actions and other irrelevant issues (e.g., "That's not the issue. .
anger strategically. Don't express anger simply to vent your
frustrations. Show anger to make a point or to break a deadlock.
a record. One of the members of your group should act as a note
taker. Don't hesitate to ask a bureaucrat to repeat something "for the
record." This will put them on notice that you mean serious business.
on to any concessions. Refer to any concession, however tentative,
as a firm agreement on their part. Don't let them back off. Chances
are the opposition is not as organized as you are. Its members may not
agree with each other. Treat the most conciliatory member as the spokesperson
and his or her statements as binding.
firm timetables and standards of performance. Don't accept vague
promises and empty statements. Ask them to be specific and to set firm
do their work for them. Don't agree to write grant proposals
for them or to establish programs; that's their job.
what you will and will not accept.
to entering the negotiations, set
maximum and minimum goals where the minimum is the very least
with which you would be satisfied. Never compromise on the minimum.
high demands and few concessions.
settle for less than 100% of your demands. But don't turn down
less. Just don't settle for it. Keep the pressure up until you get the
compromise without any thought of future consequences.
are not sure whether or not a proposed compromise is satisfactory, don't
be forced into a premature agreement.
Tell them you need time to think about it.
if the negotiation session deadlocks?
them know you don't think you're getting anywhere.
out. A carefully orchestrated "walk out" may break the deadlock
and force concessions.
Don't hesitate to threaten other action, such as media coverage
or litigation. "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing
itself" (Alinsky, 1972). Subtle threats are probably the most effective
since they allow an official to "save face"; for example, "Look, the
press is really interested in these kinds of issues," or "We don't want
to have to go to court to resolve this issue."
a letter to the agency summarizing the major points discussed
during the negotiating session. The letter should highlight major agreements
reached during the session, agreed upon timetables and standards for
performance, and, if the session was unsuccessful, disagreements and
glaring examples of agency unresponsiveness. Copies of the letter should
be sent to agency "higher-ups" as well as your own allies. The letter
should clearly state that if the official's recollection of the meeting
differs from your record (based on carefully recorded notes or a tape
recording), he or she should write you immediately. A certified letter
carries an official and formal aura.
negotiations. If you win your objectives through negotiation,
hold a press conference and send out an "action bulletin" to your constituency
announcing a "major policy breakthrough." Your negotiations can serve
as a precedent for other groups.
negotiations. Continue to negotiate only as long as you are
making significant progress. Don't waste your time negotiating with
intransigent officials. When negotiations seem to drag on and on, with
no end in sight, tell the officials that you want a firm decision within
a specific time period.
It is sometimes effective to negotiate around an issue with
representatives of more than one agency. When you find officials continuing
to engage in passing the buck, call a meeting among all of the buck-passers
to locate responsibility for providing services.
negotiations. Long-term change is seldom accomplished through
negotiations alone. Do not be discouraged if negotiations do not result
in immediate systemic victories. By increasing your understanding of
the system and creating a record of attempts to resolve issues on a
face-to-face basis, negotiating paves the way for other strategies:
press coverage, lobbying, appeals to other authorities, litigation,
public forums, and others.
S. D. (1972). Rules for radicals. New York: Vintage. Biklen, D. (1974).
Let our children go: An organizing manual for advocates and parents. Syracuse,
NY: Human Policy Press.
C. (1971). How to organize an effective parent group and move bureaucracies.
Chicago: Coordinating Council for Handicapped Children.
R. (n.d.). Negotiation. Chapel Hill: Developmental Disabilities Training
was originally prepared in 1979 by the DD Rights Center of the Mental Health
Law Project and the Center on Human Policy, Syracuse, NY, under HEW Office
of Human Development Grant of National Significance #54P71332/3-01. Douglas
Biklen and Lesley Lannan assisted in the preparation of the original paper.
This updated version of this paper was prepared in 2000.
support for the preparation of this version was provided by the National
Resource Center on Supported Living and Choice, Center on Human Policy,
Syracuse University. The National Resource Center is funded by the National
Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of
Education through Contract No. H133A990001. The opinions expressed herein
are solely those of the author, and no endorsement by any federal agency
should be inferred.
For further information, please contact
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