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ADR: Negotiation and Facilitation

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) encompasses many tools to help resolve all types of conflicts. I wrote about the fundamentals of mediation and arbitration in a previous blog. This blog provides an overview of the ADR tools of negotiation and facilitation.

Negotiation Skills

Negotiation is a technique used to settle disputes and reach agreements between two or more parties without the help of an outside facilitator, mediator, or arbitrator. A successful negotiation results in a solution where those involved communicate and work together, often with a give-and-take interaction. Ideally, negotiated solutions benefit everyone.

Negotiations occur frequently within public workplaces; for example, among coworkers, within or across departments, between an employee and employer, and/or between elected officials. Negotiators may negotiate contract terms, project timelines, compensation, and much more. Leadership, active listening, trust, curiosity, and flexibility are all important negotiating skills.

A negotiation is often the first level of dispute resolution for both small and large matters. Many local governments have labor negotiating teams for collective bargaining as well as human resources staff available to assist with interpersonal disputes in the workplace. Much has been written and is available about how to conduct successful negotiations. Here are my favorite suggestions to help improve all kinds of negotiations.

  1. Begin with the end in mind by identifying your final goal. Ideally, your goal should align with your agency’s mission and guiding principles. Consider your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and why it is beneficial to negotiate an agreement.
  2. Determine the process to follow. It is best to articulate the expectations for a negotiation so all parties may rely on the procedure in place to assist with a meaningful discussion. Ask and agree about who are the persons that will participate, when and how much time is budgeted, where the negotiation will take place, and what items might be considered.
  3. Build rapport. This is one of the most valuable negotiation skills, especially in our team-based public workplaces where we often serve together with coworkers for many years. Sincere expressions of caring and interest between parties help make negotiations more collaborative and successful.
  4. Be flexible and willing to compromise. When we stay open and curious about the potential solution, we are able to better hear and understand the positions of others.
  5. Listen to understand, not to respond. We learn when we listen, not when we are talking. Listen without interrupting and try to fully understand what others are saying and meaning. Reflect back what you hear to make sure you are understanding. Acknowledge any difficult feelings, like frustration, disappointment, or fear.
  6. Be curious and nonjudgmental. Ask questions then listen fully to the answers. Rather than asking question that often result in simple “yes” or “no” responses, try to ask open-ended questions that invite fuller response; for example, “Tell me more about . . . .”
  7. Plan for next steps when an agreement is reached. Depending on the subject and type of dispute, you may want to collectively decide to reduce the agreement to writing with action steps and a timeline.

Facilitation Skills

Facilitation is “the act of helping other people to deal with a process or reach an agreement or solution without getting directly involved in the process or discussion yourself.” Facilitation can also help “to make a process possible or easier.” (Cambridge English Dictionary).

Facilitation as an ADR tool refers to an outside person staying neutral, leading the process, and creating participation in a group. Some managers or leaders use skills similar to facilitation to solve disputes with their teams and employees. Commonly, local governments use facilitators during the creation of strategic plans and during council/commission retreats.

Facilitators provide opportunities and resources to a group of people that enable the group to make progress and succeed. A neutral and experienced facilitator helps the group members work together to find their own solutions. When stakes are high, it is especially important to use a facilitator experienced in helping the group set their own ground rules and expectations, establish trust, encourage full participation, facilitate the discussion, hold the time and space, keep up momentum, and work toward solutions.

The best facilitators have in-depth experience and the following skills and abilities (among many others):

  • Maintain neutrality,
  • Create an inclusive environment,
  • Understand group dynamics,
  • Communicate clear guidelines,
  • Help the group establish its own ground rules,
  • Build trust in the process, and
  • Keep participation and momentum moving forward.

A facilitator creates and holds a positive safe space where progress is made toward the best solutions. Durable agreements are reached voluntarily by the parties and often captured in writing. Measures agreed to may include how to track future progress and when further facilitation may be desired.

Concluding Thoughts

Negotiation and facilitation are important ADR tools to consider and use, especially in the business of local government, where firsthand experience using these tools can help to build strong working relationships. This is essential, especially in today’s challenging and changing environment.

Many ADR professionals now offer their services using virtual platforms as well as in person. ADR works — and it often works well — to resolve disputes of all kinds and to prevent future conflict. I hope this brief introduction encourages you to use ADR more in your workplaces and communities.


Here are some internal and external resources that provide more information about ADR or ADR support centers.

From MRSC:

From external resources:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Linda Gallagher

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.