Competitive Bargaining vs. Cooperative problem solving

There are two different approaches to negotiation -- competitive bargaining and cooperative problem solving. This section will give an overview of these two approaches.

Competitive bargainingHistorically, the word ‘negotiation’ means ‘business’ and negotiation has a major role in business transactions.

The crudest form of negotiation in an international conference resembles crude commercial negotiations, for example, when you are trying to buy or sell a second-hand car and the only point at issue is the price. In that case the buyer wants to pay as little as possible, while the seller wants to receive as much as possible. A gain by one party means an equal loss by the other. This type of negotiation is sometimes referred to as ‘competitive bargaining’. It has been extensively studied over the centuries by traders everywhere and, more recently, in business schools.

You probably already understand this form of negotiation. The essential feature is that each party receives something which they accept as the outcome of the negotiation. At the simplest they would receive equal shares; but the issues before international conferences are generally far too complex for that and the needs and capabilities of the nations concerned are too varied for any simple equilibrium. Instead, at the international level, the balance to be found is between trade-offs, in which not only the quantity but also the nature of what different parties receive is different.

Each party is concerned primarily to maximize its own gains and minimize the cost to themselves.

Then some important tactical principles come to the fore:
  • Always ask for more than you expect to get. Think of some of the things asked for as ‘negotiating coin’ that you can trade away in order to achieve your aim. You can also assume that the other party does not expect to get everything they ask for and that some of their requests are only negotiating coin.
  • You might even start off by demanding things you do not really hope to achieve, but which you know other parties strongly oppose. By such blackmail you may hope that the other parties will make concessions to you just to refrain from pressing such demands.
  • Always hide your ‘bottom line’. Because the other party’s aim is to concede to you as little as possible, you may get more if they are not aware of how little is acceptable to you.
  • Take early and give late. Negotiators often undervalue whatever is decided in the early part of the negotiation and place excessive weight on whatever is agreed towards the end of the negotiation.
  • As the negotiation progresses, carefully manage the ‘concession rate’. If you ‘concede’ things to the other party too slowly, they many lose hope of achieving a satisfactory agreement; but if you ‘concede’ too fast, they could end up with more than you needed to give them.
  • The points at issue are seen as having the same worth for both sides –although they rarely do.
Precepts of this kind can readily generate a competitive or even combative spirit and encourage negotiators to consider a loss by their counterparts as a gain for themselves. It should be evident that such sentiments at the international level are harmful to relations and thus to the prospects of cooperation and mutual tolerance.

Cooperative problem-solving

A view of the Conference on Disarmament during a session on “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.” A view of the Conference on Disarmament during a session on “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.”

An entirely different style of negotiation is more common in international conferences than ‘competitive bargaining’, both because it is generally more productive and is widely seen as more appropriate in dealings between representatives of sovereign states. This style of negotiation starts from the premise that you both have an interest in reaching agreement and therefore an interest in making proposals that the other is likely to agree to. In other words, each has an interest in the other(s) also being satisfied.

Achieving your objective requires that you also work to achieve the objectives of the other party (or parties) –to the extent that such effort is compatible with your objectives. The same applies to your counterpart(s): it is in their interest to satisfy you to the maximum extent possible. This makes negotiation a cooperative effort to find an outcome that is attractive to all parties.

To succeed in this type of negotiation, principles apply which are quite contrary to those that apply in ‘competitive bargaining’, namely:
  • It is important not to request concessions from the other side that you know are impossible for them. If you do so, they will find it difficult to believe that you are genuinely working for an agreement.
  • It is in your interest that the other party should understand your position. Indeed, perhaps they should even know your ‘bottom line’. If they understand how close they are to that ‘bottom line’ on one point, they will also understand the necessity to include other elements that you value so as to give you an incentive to agree.
  • Sometimes it is in your interest to ‘give’ a lot to the other side early in the negotiation process so as to give them a strong incentive to conclude the negotiation and therefore ‘give’ you what you need to be able to reach agreement.
  • The ‘concession rate’ may not be important.
  • There is a premium on understanding that the same points have different values for different negotiators and also on finding additional points on which to satisfy them.
Characteristics of winning proposals

GMUN Head Delegates' Meeting GMUN Head Delegates' meeting

The most effective tool in international conferences is empathy for other delegations, acquired mainly through informal consultations.

On that basis, you can develop proposals which are attractive to a large majority of conference participants. You can lead by the quality of your idea.

Others may be only mildly interested in your country and its preoccupations. But a proposal that is broadened to encompass their preoccupations as well can result in a broader coalition of nations agreeing to support what you want to achieve.

Consider the following two statements:
  • Free trade in agriculture would be good for country X farmers
  • Free trade in agriculture would be good for all agricultural exporters and for consumers in food-importing countries
The first statement has less appeal for an international audience than the second statement. Both formulations make it equally clear that country X delegation supports freer trade in agricultural products but the second formulation explains why many others should support it as well.

Likewise principles and precedents can be very important considerations, well worth referring to; but only those principles and precedents which are widely known and respected by those whom you are trying to persuade to support the outcome you want.

In preparation for MUN simulations, delegates can learn about important principles and precedents that they could refer to in negotiations by studying records of speeches given by actual delegations during General Assembly or Security Council meetings on the agenda items of interest.

If a proposal is  cogently expressed, it starts with considerable advantages. If beyond that it reflects the wishes of as many other delegations as possible, it is well on the way to being accepted. The challenge for you is to develop a proposal or see to it that one is developed, which meets these requirements and also reflects your wishes.

As pointed out earlier, each negotiation can be thought of as a search for a solution to the conundrum posed by the fact that different delegations have different objectives and ambitions.  The solution is not to get irritated with or try to pressure individual delegates. Instead, as we have indicated, it is to find a formulation that is acceptable to all.

A proposal will have general appeal if all delegations like it. It may however also be accepted if some delegations like it and no others particularly object to it. It could also succeed if some like it, while those who do not particularly like it think that it gives them enough or that it is as good (from their point of view) as they can hope to get. Possibly even some decide that although they do not like the proposal there are reasons why they should not press or even express their opposition. In other words, a wide spectrum of attitudes may be hidden by a proposal’s general acceptability; but the majority view must be positive.

The winning text will emerge from what all can agree on and what will advance the objectives of each to the extent possible, despite differences in views and objectives.

Negotiators will only agree to an outcome that they consider acceptable. They will agree more readily the more they see the outcome as advancing their objectives. This means that you have an interest in the outcome being one that advances the objectives of the other party (or parties) as well as your own. In your own interest, you should work to advance the objectives of the other side, to the extent that this is not incompatible with achieving your own objectives.

This is not a question of the goodness of your heart; it is a way of giving the other party(ies) an incentive to agree to an outcome which serves your objectives.

Logical argument

Reason is the most effective and thus the most widely-used line of argument in international conferences.

The most persuasive arguments will be those which appear reasonable from the perspective of the people you are trying to convince. Indeed your whole line of argument will be looked upon positively if it is developed from their perspective. At the very least you should not speak from your own perspective but from a general one.


Closely related to this idea is that of momentum.

As the negotiations progress, it is often the case that a particular solution or approach to a solution gains support. More and more delegations come to expect this to be the outcome on which the conference will reach agreement. In other words their expectations focus on this approach or solution and consequently they discard other approaches and solutions, concentrating instead on how this solution can be adjusted to make it acceptable to them. The conference can then be seen to have increasing momentum towards this solution.

The analogy is often drawn with a snowball, which gains in size by accretion and momentum as it rolls down a hill. Such a solution can become irresistible.


All of the approaches discussed here can benefit greatly from negotiators that can bring a new perspective to the issues which divide a conference and see the opportunities that can be found in the very differences between the objectives of different delegations and the different values they place on different factors.

An important help to this is knowledge –gained by experience and/or reading– of solutions or approaches that have worked in other negotiations, together with the ability to adapt them to the situation at hand.

Agreements, including negotiated positions, are sometimes criticized for being the lowest common denominator. That is to say something the delegates could agree on; but far short of more ambitious agreements they could have reached. Such outcomes are often defined as that to which no participant objects. Winston Churchill accused his chiefs of the armed forces of producing advice that reflected ‘the sum of all their fears’. It is sometimes useful to identify this lowest common denominator, but then to treat it as a basis on which to devise an agreement of greater value to all participants.