Winston Peters says he will start serious negotiations with the major parties once all the special votes are counted. National, Labour and the Greens have selected their negotiating teams and which combination forms the next government will likely depend how skilled each side is.

Deborah Hart, executive director of the Arbitrators and Mediators’ Institute, looks at what they will need in their toolkits.

Negotiating, as those of us in the business of dispute resolution sometimes like to say, involves exploring interests and implementing strategies to achieve them. It also involves keeping goals and interests to the fore when making major decisions.

That’s true whether that’s haggling over the price of a new car, resolving a hostage crisis or determining the next government of New Zealand (which some might think has elements of the other two situations in it as well).

While it’s true most of us don’t know the specifics of what is currently being negotiated on the political front, we can still be pretty sure how those negotiations should progress — at least if they are to reach the best outcome.

Indeed, in many ways the current coalition process offers a number of useful pointers on the art of striking a good deal.

For starters, of course, it’s a reminder of how negotiation seldom takes place on a level playing field. Power is rarely ever distributed evenly. Somebody usually has an upper hand — in this case, obviously, the chap from Northland with the sharp Italian suits. And the balance can shift. Think what would happen to NZ First’s power if the Greens started negotiating with National.

It reminds us that successful negotiations need the parties not so much to trust each other but to trust the process. That’s something everyone involved in the current talks really ought to be pushing for – a robust process.

It reminds us of the importance of timing. People may bellyache over how long these negotiations are lasting for. But the insistence by nearly everyone involved to wait at least until the final votes are counted (and then allow a bit of additional time after that) is positive from a professional point of view.

Even relatively straightforward negotiations usually require circuit breakers and time out for when things are — or appear to be — going off track. Although how this will be handled in a setting where the talks are going in three directions — if not more —  is a little hard to see on this occasion.

It reminds us that anyone at the negotiating table has to have something to give in order to keep things moving. And when one side moves and the other doesn’t, that’s when we often get a no-deal.

So what are the points the negotiators themselves might want to bring with them into the smoke-free rooms?

* The right offer at the wrong time is the wrong offer. (Which is why no one is forcing Winston Peters to talk right now.)

* Prepare well. Think about what you need, what your negotiating partner might need and your bottom lines.

* What is your best alternative to a negotiated agreement?

* Listen. Listen. Listen.

* The decision-makers must ideally be part of the negotiation.

* Get some successes early in the negotiation – it helps to drive momentum.

* Talk about the difficult stuff.

* Tie up the deal well. You don’t want to have to renegotiate, especially not if it involves forming a stable government.

Finally. Negotiation is a skill, and it’s not necessarily a natural fit with other elements in the political toolkit. The participants might do well to get some additional assistance from experts. 

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