Getting to “NO” while getting to “KNOW” the DN triple C
Negotiating at your own risk without a BATNA or a meeting strategy with high ranking politicians.
As we learned in the foundation courses in negotiation and alternative dispute resolution, it is critical to establish one’s BATNA or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement before engaging in any negotiation session. Of equal importance is a meeting strategy to go hand in glove with the BATNA.This is especially true when negotiating with influential economic decision makers. In this essay, I will discuss my negotiation experiences with Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Chairman of the Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee (the DN triple C). As explained in Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, a BATNA is essential when as the authors so eloquently explain, “they are more powerful.” 1 Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes, New York: Penguin Books, 1991 page 178. Fisher and Ury aver that a strong BATNA actually gives the weaker party more power in the negotiation. “The relative negotiating power of two parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement.” 2. Ibid. p 102. It is essential to understand the power and value of this statement in the “realpolitik” world of the mid term elections.
With less than 75 days until the election, I signed on as the Director of CampaignFinance and Strategy for Mrs. Natalie Mosher, the Democratic candidate for the 11th Congressional District in SouthEast Michigan. My first assignment was to schedule a meeting with Congressman Van Hollen at the DN triple C headquarters in the capital. We were joined in Washington by Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, the Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Mrs. Mosher’s mentor in the adjoining Detroit congressional district.
Our meeting with the DN triple C Chairman was on and then off and then rescheduled to meet with his chief of staff. Mrs. Mosher refused to meet with the Chairman’s chief of staff and cancelled the appointment. This was a strategic mistake. It is important to cover all of the bases and to meet with all of the decision makers in a strategic sale. The chief of staff whom I will refer to as the “gatekeeper” could have positioned and prepared us properly and opened the door for a meeting with the Chairman, the economic buyer. I would learn later what transpired to change Congressman Van Hollen’s mind about meeting with us. He concluded that our candidate was not in a strong enough position to win the congressional seat. We should have sent him a meeting agenda in advance to set the tone for the meeting and to position our candidate as a viable contender for the Congressional seat. It was up to us to change his mind based on our presentation and strategy for winning his support. Our BATNA would be of utmost importance in this session. Congressman Conyers who was not planning to attend in the first place used his influence to confirm definitively the appointment with Chairman Van Hollen.
In preparation for our meeting, I asked Mrs. Mosher about the structure of the session and her strategy. She explained that her “ask” of Congressman Van Hollen was to allocate some monies to her campaign and to contact a number of influential PACs for follow through meetings with her and to request their endorsements and funds. I inquired: “What is your plan to move the discussion to your specific ask?” Her answer was, “Well, after all Congressman Conyers will be there.” I reframed her reply along the lines of “You are confident that Congressman Conyers will move us forward with Chairman Van Hollen?” I quickly concluded that there was no BATNA nor was there a meeting strategy to boot. If the Chairman said “no,” what was Plan B? We rushed pell mell to meet our destiny with the leadership of the Democratic Party.
During the cab ride to the Chairman’s office, I succinctly explained the concept of the BATNA and its importance along with the value of a meeting strategy and an Appreciative Inquiry approach. The immediate focus was to get to the DN triple C HQ and to link up with Congressman Conyers. Congressman Van Hollen predictably requested our polling statistics, the district’s election history and demographics, the market analysis and the amount of YTD funds raised. “Now, I mused, what is our plan for “getting to yes” with the chairman?” A few carefully developed questions to reveal the Chairman’s interests would increase our persuasiveness. By listening closely to Congressman Van Hollen and his interests for Maryland and the Democratic Party, before weighing in with our requests, we would highlight our listening punch and demonstrate that we understood his needs. Instead, the discussion moved directly to Michigan’s campaign requests. This action created an immediate focus on positions instead of interests. Our side needed monies and the DN triple C’s support while the Chairman supported elect able candidates and Democratic incumbents encountering strong opposition. With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, we could have reviewed the common interests between his home state of Maryland and Michigan on such subjects as home foreclosures, jobs, the economy, senior citizens, health care, the Recovery Act, civil and human rights, and education to name but a few. Our “ask” for campaign funds was appropriate along with our request for access to the Democratic PACs.Our BATNA could have highlighted our ability to win conclusively with facts, visual presentations, initiatives, and supporting documentation to make the point that the Democrats could not afford to concede this seat to the opposition. With additional DN triple C help, the 11th Congressional District would shore up this seat for the Democrats at a time when every seat in Congress was weighed and measured by both political parties. Our BATNA would therefore support his and the Democratic Party’s strategy to retain majority control of the House. If funds were not forthcoming from the DN triple C, then we could still seize victory from the jaws of defeat with the Chairman’s agreement to call the PACs on our behalf. This would be an acceptable win for Michigan.
The Chairman wanted congressional district data. Our candidate did not bring any of this information with her because her perceived BATNA was Congressman John Conyers. He was persuasive in his argument for DN3C support; however, he was a strong resource but not a substitute, despite his power, presence and eloquence, for a well conceived BATNA. In this situation, according to Fisher and Ury, a “carefully crafted commitment” from Michigan was needed to present to Chairman Van Hollen. 3 IBID. p184. Our candidate could have firmly committed herself as a staunch ally of the Democratic Party and the Chairman’s goals, as well as those of Congressman Conyers based on her election to Congress. Research would reveal Congressman Van Hollen’s advocacy for court intervention to stop foreclosures in Maryland, a pressing issue in Michigan as well. We designed specific initiatives to create more jobs and attract businesses to move to Michigan in the mortgage, real estate, banking, title insurance, underwriting and banking businesses. These initiatives could have been presented to the Chairman as national ones or for Maryland under his sponsorship in exchange for Michigan’s “asks.” Our candidate did not understand these job creation plans, so they were never proffered in the meeting.
A firm commitment needed to be stated to Congressman Van Hollen in return for his agreement to help our campaign. This is the all important “what’s in it for me?” statement. The “what’s in it for you Chairman Van Hollen “statement was conspicuously absent from the discussion.
When we returned to Michigan, I prepared a follow through draft email to Congressman Van Hollen to address his questions and to provide him with the relevant details. I reviewed the rough draft with his executive assistant to make sure that my thinking was on track. She endorsed the content and stated that the Chairman would be interested in initiatives that would offer value to him and the party. Unfortunately, the follow through draft was caught in the throes of “analysis/paralysis” by the candidate. The email to the chairman was never sent. Mrs. Mosher deemed the meeting a failure since we did not receive Congressman Van Hollen’s immediate approval and blessing. The absence of a BATNA and meeting strategy with specific ideas to present to the Congressman, the oversight to explain an attractive quid pro quo proposal based on our common interests and the lack of follow through guaranteed that no funds would be forthcoming from the DNC3 for our campaign. The phone calls to the PACs became a moot point.
There are two lessons to be learned from this experience. The first lesson validates the need for the mediator to be flexible and to sense when it is appropriate to assume the roles of the ally, strategist, coach or organizer to help the parties to recognize the value of collaborative team work for a common goal. The second lesson learned is to have a BATNA, a meeting plan to get to yes, and an agreed upon team negotiation strategy in hand prior to any important session. This may seem basic; however, the presence of powerful people such as Congressman Conyers is not a substitute for these key elements in negotiation. In fact, their presence is all the more reason to take nothing for granted and to have a BATNA with a meeting and negotiation strategy developed in advance.