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Basic Political Negotiation Techniques

Sun Tzu1Grassroots politics or lobbying isn’t always just about conflict. Sometimes it’s about negotiating and compromise.

As Sun Tzu put it, “Better to take all under Heaven intact than to fight”. If you can “win” without having to fight, expend resources, or potentially make enemies that you might need as friends in the next fight, it’s always better.

There can be a lot of reasons to negotiate and compromise. From the reality that “you’re going to lose” to “even if you win it will cost too much to fight it out”…or maybe you just need to stall for time to fight later.  However you arrive at the decision, you need to be just as clear-eyed as to how to go about it as you would if you were starting a campaign.

Define Success

Before you negotiate anything, make sure that you do your homework. What’s the objective? What do you want or need? What represents a good deal? What could put you in a better position to fight the next battle and make more progress in the future?

What do the other guys need, and why? What kind of pressure are they under to make a deal? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are theirs? Who needs to make a deal more?

Decide what you can afford to give up in order to get a good deal – and what you absolutely can’t negotiate. The more information that you have the stronger your position will be…and the less likely you’ll be to make a bad deal.

Have a Plan

Don’t fly by the seat of your pants. Make sure that you have a reason for every concession that you make…and that you get something in return for everything that you give up. Otherwise, it’s not much of a compromise.

Negotiate From Strength

Sometimes the whole point of going on offense with an over-reaching, unreasonable position is specifically to be able to win an easier victory by “compromising” the position back a little later on. Of course this just reinforces the principle that you should always be on offense to begin with.

But if you’re in a weak position, your best bet is to try to get something that will either make you stronger next time, or buy more time to get stronger.

Never Go First

It’s a basic principle of negotiation that you should never be the first one to name a price. Usually, that person loses. When you throw out the first offer, you’ve given away some valuable information to the other side about how weak or strong you may be. They will also know what you’re willing to give up…and then they’ll want more.

Shut Your Trap

Let the other side talk. You’ll learn more that way. Listen to what they’re saying…and what they’re NOT saying. They might tip their hand. You’ll get a better idea of what they really want or need.

Take Your Time

Don’t get in a hurry. When you do, you usually screw up somewhere. Make the other side invest time. People usually get impatient and want to “get it over with”…and then they mess up. Make sure that it’s the other side, not you.

Have an Out

Always keep something in your pocket that’s your “out” if things start to go the wrong way. Something you can blame it on when you have to call it off, without damaging a relationship that you might need later.

Be Willing to Walk Away

If you seem too eager to make a deal, you’ll look weak and they’ll take advantage of you. But if you go into a negotiation willing to just walk away, it will show – and make your position look stronger.

It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

Stay focused on the deal and the moving parts. Don’t let it get personal. In politics, the odds are that you may need to work with them again in the future. Don’t be so pushy that the other guys feel trapped. Give them some room. As Confucius put it, “Build a golden bridge of escape for your enemies”. Let them see the way out that you want them to take.


Remember, political negotiating and compromise are just means to an end, the same as political conflict. Just be sure that you know what defines a win that will help advance the “ends”.