Moving from “no” to an informed conversation

Labor Relations Report

“No” is a perfectly acceptable answer in a negotiation. It is also a great start to a conversation when negotiating.

How to get from “no” to an informed conversation was the theme of the 2022 NJSPBA Collective Bargaining Seminar. The knowledge imparted during the three-day seminar is not only useful during negotiations, but also in the day-to-day operations of a police agency. The PERC Act declared as the public policy of this state that the best interests of the people are served by the prevention or prompt settlement of labor disputes seeking to promote permanent, employer-employee peace and the health, welfare, comfort and safety of the people.

We strive to teach our attendees methods of negotiating and advocating that stress the importance of being reasonable. A successful negotiation is when both sides are satisfied with what they received but each feels they could have gotten just a bit more. When I asked the attorneys to craft their presentations, I wanted them to focus on showing the Local’s leadership how to approach the administration and governing body with sufficient information to be confident that they were on an even playing field.

When confronted with a negative response, a union rep can rely upon the tools that we provide at the seminar to have that conversation without attorneys. Our legal update provided by Bob Fagella — in conjunction with the process for recognizing and filing an Unfair Labor Practice charge at PERC — was a literal eye-opener for many of the 476 registrants in attendance. As reported in this space several times in the past two years, many policies were implemented by employers in response to the pandemic that were mandatorily negotiable. The Locals who recognized the proposed unilateral changes were able to have that conversation immediately and get acceptable terms before any harm came to the membership. Since that seemed to be one of the hottest topics, we decided to showcase it.

I was very proud of the months of hard work of the Delegates on the PBA Collective Bargaining Committee as Hoboken Local 2 President Marc Marsi addressed the crowd, crediting our annual seminar with teaching him and several other members of his executive board all they needed for an exemplary contract negotiations result. Asbury Park Local 6 President Bill Lewis also used the knowledge he gained from prior attendance to personally negotiate a contract that used outside-the-box thinking backed by fact, figures and solutions to problems that both sides were facing.

I’m sure no one would be surprised to know that when Marc and Bill initially submitted their respective proposals, they were met with…”no.” That allowed the opportunity that they wanted. They were able to start talking until they reached an agreement. How did they do that? It wasn’t only the seminar that taught them all they need to know. Much of the art of negotiation is innate. All people are born with the ability to successfully negotiate. A crying baby is making a proposal for something that she wants. As the parent, you want her to stop crying, so you change her diaper, give her a bottle and hold her until she stops — both parties got what they wanted. A disorderly person becomes a model citizen upon arrival of the police. As the cop, you don’t want to deal with him for the last hour of your shift, so you tell him to leave the area and don’t return. He complies. That’s a successful negotiation.

Preston Ni is a communication coach, author, and frequent contributor to Psychology Today. In his book, How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, and Controlling People, he offers some tips on negotiating with difficult individuals, along with my thoughts on how to best utilize them.

Meet in private if possible. Negotiate with difficult people in private, where they may be more flexible. In most (but not all) cases, avoid disagreements with them in front of others, where they’re more likely to be inflexible (out of their need to be in control, compete and win). For PBA purposes, this means keep the committee small and avoid engaging in public (like at council meetings) until you are certain you are at impasse.

Neutralize their home court advantage. Whenever possible, meet with difficult individuals at a neutral location (such as a conference room, instead of their office) to help reduce their sense of home court dominance when speaking with you on their own turf. I usually like to keep the early discussions informal between the two lead negotiators to set the tone before bringing everyone into a conference room. When in their office, be cognizant of the relative heights of your chairs…it’s a sign.

Be assertive and professional in communication. Many difficult people respect those with strength, and listen more to those who communicate with assertiveness. Knowledge is power. See the seminar points above.

Bring solutions. Let the difficult person know that you are in control. If there is an issue, don’t go to the difficult person just to discuss the problem. Go with solutions in mind. Many difficult individuals work most positively with those who present themselves from a position of strength. They’re more willing to communicate and work with those who take the initiative and lend their cooperation to those who show they can help themselves. This is more applicable to grievances because you have done a thorough investigation and you can prove the violation occurred. You are prepared to resolve it with your solutions.

Focus on consequence. The ability to identify and assert consequences is one of the most important skills you can use to “stand down” a difficult person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the challenging individual and compels him or her to shift from obstruction to cooperation. Threatening arbitration does not scare employers. A continuous loss of rookie officers and an inability to attract qualified candidates because of low salaries is what got Asbury Park over the obstruction.

We are already collecting feedback and will continue to evaluate what is most relevant to our members for discussion next year. We are committed to keeping this seminar timely and topical. I would like to extend my gratitude to all presenters. Please see Mitchell Krugel’s comprehensive coverage of the seminar for a description of their contributions.