Practical Negotiation – The role of the Observer

Practical Negotiation – The role of the Observer
Posted on August 30, 2016 | Allan Cutler | Written on August 30, 2016
Letter type:
Blog Post

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

The purpose of these posts to inform the reader of  procurement issues that should be considered. Negotation theories abound. These are meant to be helpful when negotiating but not linked to any of the major theories. 

A problem in negotiation is the need to concentrate, focus on important issues and not be distracted by minor side issues. This is normal human behaviour. If you focus on interests, you may forget the goal that you are striving toward. It is always important to have, at a minimum, a clear sense of the direction that you want to proceed toward. It is also important, if possible, to ensure that minor concessions do not conflict with essential future major concessions.

Equally essential is recognizing that we are all ‘wired’. All of us miss events that are occurring around us.  When we focus on one thing, we don’t see or observe another. For example, as you are reading this document, you may not hear immediately if someone talks to you. If you are talking, you may miss activities or signals that other members are sending to you.  

It is a myth, not a fact, that we can multi-task. In fact, we can only focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is actually a doing many different tasks - one at a time. It is the movement from one activity to another that gives the multi-tasking illusion. Studies have shown that this ‘multi-tasking’ is actually counterproductive. Time is lost as people change an activity since you need to refocus.

Human beings cannot absorb or be aware of all activities around us. We are genetically disposed to focus on what we perceive as the greatest threat. This is a self-defence and survival mechanism. Focusing is an important example that coordinated teamwork can accomplish what we cannot do alone. 

In practical negotiation (or any negotiation), it is recommended that an observer accompany you. Note that I said observer and not participant. This is done by some countries in international negotiation. It is recognized that the lead negotiator has to focus on the discussion.  The observer supports the negotiator as a silent partner. This prevents interrupting key discussions and ensure the flow of the conversation remains intact.

The role of the observer is not to participate in the main negotiation but to watch and observe activities that may convey important information. Examples can be a change in body language when a point is being said; hesitation when speaking by a normally animator participant, side comments made by others and when the other side writes notes.

When there is a break or after the negotiation session ends, the observer will meet with the negotiator and discuss observations. These observations become an important part of the debriefing exercise as they are some examples of events that may (or may not) be important indicators regarding negotiation points.  For example, the lead negotiator may have focused on obtaining an important concession. However the observer may have noted satisfied smiles among the members of the other side and/or making a check mark made against written notes. In other words, the concession may have had a major value to the other side while being only of minor value to you. Without the observer this may have been overlooked.

With over 35 years of professional experience, Allan Cutler consults with and assists firms in all aspects of the public sector process. With regard to procurement, this assistance starts with understanding the procurement process and documents, continues through preparing proposals in response to competitive RFPs and includes negotiating resulting contracts.
He also teaches public sector procurement at Algonquin College. Knowing what it takes to create winning teams and built long-term partnerships that drive success, when needed, he consults in professional and organizational ethics.



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With over 35 years of procurement experience, Allan Cutler consults with and assists firms in preparing proposals in response to competitive RFP. He understands procurement documents and negotiating with the public... More