Effective negotiation for planners

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web_negotiate_istock_250sq [square]From everyday interactions to complex deals, negotiation is a crucial skill. Helen Bird gleans some tips from an expert and finds out how they can be applied effectively in planning negotiations

Most people talk about getting planning permission in the same way that they describe root canal treatment – painful, unnecessary and the other party seems to take an unnatural delight in the task.
It’s only since working with town planners that I have understood the situation from the other side.

Planners are passionate about doing the right thing by communities and making a space that is fair and suitable for all. So why the tension and antagonism in planning negotiations?

Collaborate to accumulate

Gareth Batterbee [square]Freelance training consultant Gareth Batterbee (left) explains the basic principles for a successful interaction.

Interest vs position

If you want a successful negotiation, you need to operate at the level of interest rather than position. Position is all about the details: “I want this.”
If someone wants something different then there’s going to be a loser in the negotiation.

Interest is at a higher level. “I want a solution that meets my high-level desires, but there might be a number of answers that give me what I want.” With interest negotiation, there is more scope for all parties to come out with a win.

The planner has a set of rules (the position) which are there to ensure that there is a fair system in place, that the character and look of areas is maintained, and so on (the interest). The other party, be they developer or householder, has their own position and interest. Conflicts usually arise when both parties want to retain their position but are unwilling or unable to see that they can get what they want in a different way.

Play the game


The first step in achieving this interest negotiation is to understand the other party.

Ask questions that get to what is really important to them. The next stage is to educate them about why you are objecting to their first position by explaining your interest. You can then work together to explore options that will help both sides to achieve what they need.

Of course, the world isn’t perfect, and sometimes the other party refuses to budge. However, it is important not to take it personally. Although the language they use might be personal, it would be the same for anyone in your position. Keep your emotions in control and treat it as a game, not a matter of life and death.

I often hear town planners saying that developers or householders 'cheat' by appealing directly to council members.

My response is simple; if you keep your stakeholders informed of the reasons for your decisions, and you proactively manage them and understand their wishes, then those same members can become your allies.

Don’t complain if someone goes to their democratically elected representative and asks for help – it’s all part of the system. Just make sure that you’re aligned with your stakeholders as part of your planning.

Negotiation: Top tips

Bearing the following in mind will make your negotiations easier:

  1. Take time to listen and understand the interests of the parties involved
  2. Explore options that will satisfy the interests of both sides
  3. Manage your stakeholders
  4. Don’t take it personally.

This article first appeared in The Planner magazine in May 2014.

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