Negotiation may be defined as a communication process by which parties resolve conflicts and put together deals.  While this process may help construct deals on a micro level in everyday life, it can also be useful on a macro level in shaping a nation’s political structure.  It is in this context that negotiation played a pivotal role in Poland during the Round Table Talks of 1989.

Following a period of social unrest and an intensification of economic problems, the leaders of the Communist Polish United Worker’s Party ( hereinafter “PZPR”) agreed to meet with leaders of the opposition-Solidarity ( hereinafter “opposition”) in February of 1989.  What followed came to be known as the Polish Round Table Talks, and took place in Warsaw from February 6 to April 4 of 1989.  Ultimately, these negotiations drastically changed the political dynamic of Poland by stripping the Communist party of its control while simultaneously setting off a series of Communist collapses in the Soviet bloc. 

The crux of the talks centered on political reform and included four chronological segments: Preliminary Political Package, First Official Proposal, Second Official Proposal and Final Details.

This article will examine the specific negotiation tactics employed in the First Official Proposal and analyze why these tactics either succeeded or failed. 


Realizing their precarious position, PZPR strategists soon outlined a formal proposal and offered a political system which included that thirty to forty percent of the 460 seats in the Sejm would be elected by open competition.  Additionally, the PZPR proposed the idea of a president, who would oversee the operations of the Sejm and would be regime-controlled.  Paramount to this new proposal was that PZPR representatives emphasized its program would center around “matters which would join Poles” and would allow both sides to reach their respective objectives. 
    The opposition responded by vehemently rejecting the notion of a regime-controlled president and stipulated the thirty to forty percent elected seats was far from satisfactory.  Instead of developing other options, transcripts from the Round Table Talks, as well as minutes from private strategic meetings, reveal that members of the opposition did not trust the members of the PZPR.  This stemmed from over twenty years of animosity toward the communist regime.  When these opinions were voiced, the PZPR responded with their own personal attacks.  As a result, by March 2, the parties appeared to be at an impasse while the future of Poland remained dismal.


Integrative bargaining finds solutions where both sides can achieve their goals with as little cost as possible to the other side.  Such bargaining does not assume the value being bargained for is fixed, but rather seeks to “expand the pie” for the parties’ mutual benefit.  When the PZPR attempted to offer solutions, such as expanding the number of seats open to competition and the proposition of a president, these were more integrative than the proposals voiced during the first stage.  They attempted to “expand the pie” by offering more options that would help the opposition reach their own respective goals and hoped to figuratively move to the same side of the table for the benefit of a shared interest—the wellbeing of Poland.  Despite this outlook, this stage of the negotiation failed because of both parties’ failure to properly implement strategies of integrative bargaining.
    There are five steps to integrative bargaining that are aimed at addressing interests and creating solutions for mutual gain.  First, it is important not to convince the other side you are right.  As Fisher and Ury stated in Getting to Yes, this involves negotiating parties should be “hard on the substance and easy on the people.”  Thus, an important aspect of this step is to concentrate on the substantive aspects of the negotiation, rather than on the opponent. 
    In this stage of the negotiation, both the opposition and the PZPR failed to be hard on the substance and easy on the people and instead tried to convince the other side that they were “right.”  The opposition representatives, who had a deep hatred and distrust of their Communist adversaries, engaged in personal attacks against the PZPR.  In response, the PZPR representatives verbally attacked their adversaries. 
    What the parties should have done instead was separate the people from the problem and attempt to understand the issue from the other side’s perspective.  The opposition, moreover, should have employed the second step that is aimed at uncovering interests: do not infer the other side’s intentions from your fears.  Here, the opposition was afraid their adversary was acting distrustfully and inferred the PZPR had ulterior motives. Rather than voice these unsubstantiated fears, the opposition should have curbed their fears and discussed their emotions in a civil manner.  If the parties did feel the need to voice their emotions, they should have confirmed their intentions before acting on them. 
    Perhaps the only positive aspect that could be gained from these attacks is that it served as a venting mechanism.  As stated in Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes, “Freed from the burden of unexpressed emotions, people will become more likely to work on the problem.”  In this context, the attacks between the opposition and PZPR representatives may have served as a venting process where each side finally expressed their feelings toward their adversary.  Though the result may have been positive and allowed the parties to negotiate uninhibited in the later stages of the Round Table Talks, these emotions could have been expressed in a more civil manner to avoid the risk of a party being so insulted that they walk out of the negotiation. 
    In addition, it is also important to distinguish interests from issues during integrative bargaining.  In doing so, one could employ the third and fourth steps of getting to interests which include using open-ended questions and listening to the unstated.  Whereas issues are “identifiable and concrete” concerns that must be addressed before an agreement is met, interests are the “abstract needs” that must be satisfied in order to reach an agreement.  Both parties recognized the issue of creating a political system for Poland.  Furthermore, both sides recognized each other positions; the opposition wanted to gain political power via increased representation in the Sejm and free elections while the PZPR wanted to retain as much power as possible.  However, neither side was able to “go below the line” and explore each other’s interests in order to find out the driving force behind their positions.  In this context, the PZPR failed to recognize that the opposition was attempting to gain political power because their interests were rooted in maintaining a positive image in Polish society.  Likewise, the opposition failed to recognize the PZPR vied to keep political power because they did not want to appear weak to the nation as a whole.  Since these interests were not addressed at this stage, the parties were not able to devise creative strategies that would address their opponents’ interests while simultaneously protecting their own interests. 
    As alluded to above, both parties could have utilized open-ended questions and listened to the unstated in extrapolating each other’s interests.  Such questions could have included phrases such as “tell me more about that,” which would have allowed the other party to speak freely and state why they held certain positions.  Furthermore, each party could have listened to the unstated, which could allow one to further decipher another party’s interests.  In the broad context of negotiation, which is a process that requires information be analyzed to plan a functional strategy, information gathering is key.  Thus, by implementing these steps of asking questions and careful listening, key information may be obtained that may help facilitate an integrated agreement.
    Had the parties’ recognized each other’s interests, they could have employed the final step of inventing options for mutual gain.  By brainstorming solutions that would address each party’s interests, the PZPR and the opposition may have reached an integrated agreement.  For example, recognizing that both parties were concerned with their public image, both sides may have reached an agreement that balanced these interests.  Unfortunately, both parties failed to properly implement these strategies during this stage of the negotiation and instead, both parties were faced with an impasse.


In sum, this negotiation serves as an example of how powerful integrative bargaining can be as a mechanism in reaching an agreement.  While the competitive strategies of the PZPR initially failed, the opposition eventually was able to effectively manage manipulative tactics, which ultimately opened the door to more integrative solutions.  Indeed, the opposition’s effective techniques were recognized not long after this negotiation and served as a basis by other groups opposing Communist regimes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Bulgaria. 

by Mark Materna

Mark Materna is receiving his Masters in Dispute Resolution and Juris Doctorate at Pepperdine University School of Law. He is currently studying international law and arbitration in London and has been published on the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal. Upon graduation from law school, Mark plans on returning to the east coast to begin his legal career. He graduated cum laude from University of Pennsylvania and enjoys traveling, running, and speaks Polish!