Life is in essence a series of negotiations. A daily activity that many of us don’t even realize we are doing. And yet, when formally labelled as a “negotiation”, the act can still incite anxiety and discomfort. Negotiation is essentially a dialogue between two parties (sometimes more) that is focussed on reaching a mutually beneficial outcome or resolving different points of views. It is a process through which we attempt to influence others to help us achieve our needs – while at the same time taking their needs into account.

Below are 10 tips to negotiate municipal service agreements more effectively.

1. Put your best foot forward.

View the negotiation as a catalyst to build understanding and trust between partners, instead of an adversarial process. Service agreements can bring significant benefits for the region as a whole. Begin with the intent of reaching a service agreement that is mutually beneficial and strengthens the relationship. After all, you will be living together as neighbours long after the agreement is reached.

2. Establish a government-to-government relationship from the top down.

Relationships are at the foundation of any service agreement. Establishing a government-to-government relationship will make it clear that the communities are committed to working together in good faith. This will not only be beneficial throughout the negotiation but during the life of the agreement itself. Begin by establishing the relationship at a political level and documenting the commitment in a protocol or memorandum. Staff on both sides of the table can work out the details.

3. Take the time to understand each other’s business.

It is important for both sides to understand the environment in which the other party is working in. One of the main barriers during service agreement negotiations is both sides not having a good understanding of the other parties business. Speaking openly and honestly will go a long way to build the trust and understanding needed to reaching an agreement that works for both governments.

4. Know your priorities before taking a seat at the table.

What are the service needs of your community? What plans are in place for growth and development in your community? Understanding the needs of your community can be done through a needs assessment, where you review your community vision and identify what services you need to achieve your community plan. You should also think about your needs for level of service, operations, maintenance, invoicing or payment terms, and training. If you are providing a service, know what the cost of providing the service is that will need to be recovered. Make a list of your needs, and identify which ones are your top priorities. The clearer you are on your interests and goals, the more successful your service agreement will be.

5. Know what you can offer.

Just as you should understand what you need, you should understand what it is that you can offer to the other party. Are there services, or components of the service that your community is able to provide? Make a list of the things your community can offer during negotiations, along with the things your community needs.

6. Ensure the right people are involved throughout the process.

First and foremost, the process of negotiating a service agreement is a business deal between two partners. Throughout the process you need to have the right people, at a variety of levels involved to collaborate and reach a deal that works for both sides. On the political level, elected officials should be engaged in setting direction for the government-to-government agreement and establishing or strengthening the relationship on a political level. Staff, such as the Band Manager and Administrator, should use the direction set out by elected officials to guide the development of the agreement. Finally, if necessary, lawyers can review the drafted contract prior to signing.

7. Strive for a service agreement that is “evergreen”.

The process of negotiating or re-negotiating a service agreement takes time. Whether it is a year or two, it is important to ensure the services will be in place no matter how long the re-negotiating process takes. This can be achieved by establishing a service agreement that is “evergreen”. An evergreen service agreement does not have an expiry date. Though rates in these agreements may be updated regularly to reflect changes in costs, but the terms are not revisited at a pre-defined date. Either party can still choose to terminate evergreen agreements within the terms of the agreement.

8. Actively listen to the other side.

Listening can be difficult – especially during emotional discussions. It is also one of the most powerful negotiation skills in your “toolkit”. Active listening happens when you pay attention to not only the speaker’s words but also nonverbal cues, allowing you (the listener) to focus on not only the words the other person is saying but, more importantly, understand the complete message being sent.
When listening, our own personal filters, judgements, and belief may distort the complete message we “hear”. For effective active listening, it is important to feed back what you have heard to the speaker. This can be done by paraphrasing what you believe the person has said or asking questions for confirmation.

9. Take time to reflect before responding.

Silence can feel uncomfortable or like a sign of weakness during negotiations. However, taking a few moments to reflect before responding will allow you the time necessary to process what you have heard and decide what to say next. Often when we don’t allow time for reflection, the response is likely to be driven by emotions. Reflecting before responding allows the message to be digested, while connecting us to our values without the emotions.

10. Make sure you understand the agreement.

Terms should be clear to the people using the agreement. Make sure definitions of uncommon terms are included. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, clarifying exactly what your party is getting from the agreement and what your party will be responsible for.