When the topic of negotiations arises, many individuals envision discussions occurring around the formal negotiating table. What often escapes the common perception are the truly pivotal conversations that lead to negotiation success. These are the dialogues that take place discreetly, concealed from plain view. This is where significant strategies are forged, alliances are cultivated, and critical information exchanges occur, ultimately shaping the trajectory of the negotiation process.
But what happens beyond the negotiation table?
Wanis-St. John (2006) describes those back-channel negotiations as “official negotiations conducted in secret between the parties to a dispute.”1 These negotiations run alongside the recognized formal negotiation. They might be considered the hidden place of a negotiation where discussions are done secretly.1;2
Back-channel negotiations offer a strategic advantage in conflict resolution. One of the key benefits lies in the reduced pressure that the negotiation partners experience. Formal negotiations often carry the weight of external attention and expectation. Especially in critical situations, there’s a significant concern about the possibility of one’s own side failing publicly during talks. In a back-channel, the negotiation partners can discreetly test the waters without being subject to external judgment.1
Moreover, the informal setting allows for open communication. Unlike formal negotiation, which often comes with a predefined framework, the back-channel provides a platform for genuine dialogue. Here, negotiation partners have the freedom to speak openly and voice concerns. At times when the opposing sides could potentially harm each other, the safety net of an informal negotiation is a great way to strengthen the collaboration in a different way.3
In challenging circumstances, there are instances when the negotiation flow comes to a halt and sometimes breaks off entirely. Waiting until the other party moves, can significantly impede the negotiation progress. Back-channel relationships have an advantage here as they keep positive conversations even when the formal negotiation stands still. This allows to bridge gaps and restart talks, even when progress appears to have reached a standstill.1
In diplomacy, back-channel negotiations are integral to conflict resolution and are occasionally revealed to the public after they occur. For example, Jacobus Coetsee, South Africa’s Minister of Justice, established a communication line with the arrested Nelson Mandela, thereby setting the foundation for the end of apartheid.1 Through our experience at the Schranner Negotiation Institute, we also see the immense value within the business world. Especially in challenging situations, back-channel negotiations are the ones that shape high stakes deals. From our point of view, they form the core of the most pivotal negotiations.
While establishing several communication channels can be advantageous, it also brings the potential for misunderstandings. It’s essential to ensure that formal and informal negotiations remain distinct, preventing the transmission of incorrect signals.3 This process requires a significant amount of trust to guarantee its effectiveness.
1 Wanis‐St. John, A. 2006. Back‐channel negotiation: International bargaining in the shadows. Negotiation Journal, 22(2): 119–144.
2 Susskind, L. E., Chayes, A., & Martinez, J. 1996. Parallel informal negotiation: A new kind of international dialogue. Negotiation Journal, 12: 19–29.
3 Mukharji, A., & Zeckhauser, R. J. 2018. Back channel negotiations and dangerous waiting. Negotiation Journal, 34: 297–307.