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 Final Details and analyze why these tactics either succeeded or failed. 


Mere days before the parties were to meet and discuss the details one final time before signing the final pact, a final proposal was introduced by representatives of the opposition.  This proposal stipulated that all Senate elections should be free; meaning each member of the Senate would be elected by open elections.  If this proposal was met, the opposition agreed to sign the agreement immediately.  With a deadline now ordered by their superiors, the PZPR approved and included this provision before the agreement was signed.  Historians attest this concession to not only time constraints, but also to “a level of bonding or, at the very least a conviction that each knew the other well.” 


Not to be overlooked in this negotiation is the importance of bonding that may occur during the negotiation process.  As stated by Deborah Tannen in You Just Don’t Understand,  “[H]elp is of use to another…it reinforces bonds between people.”  Since the opposition reframed their proposal and made it appear that they “helped” their opponent, it reinforced a bond that was then used as a basis to gain last minute concessions from the PZPR. 
    When examining all stages of this negotiation as a whole, it becomes evident that the opposition employed Axelrod’s four step strategy in developing cooperation.  In addition, the opposition employed the final tactic of being flexible.  Negotiation is a mixed motive exchange, meaning that the negotiators are faced with the problem of achieving their goals while avoiding exploitation by the other party.  There is thus a desire to cooperate and compete.  Axelrod’s strategy attempts to foster cooperation while preventing exploitation. 
    First, Axelrod advises to begin cooperatively to signal to the other side that cooperation is sought.  During the “preliminary” stage, the opposition began cooperatively by introducing themselves and asking the PZPR if they would like to begin.  Next, Axelrod states that one should retaliate if the other side is competitive.  Here, the PZPR used manipulation in proposing a political “power sharing” scheme that was no different than the communist controlled regime that had previously been in power.  In response, the opposition “retaliated” by bluntly stating the offer was unsatisfactory if not insulting.  The opposition then utilized Axelrod’s third step and forgave their opponent, by coming back to the negotiation table to discuss the “First Official Proposal.” Indeed, there were moments the opposition diverted from the fourth step of maintaining a clear and consistent approach, perhaps most notably by engaging in personal attacks with their opponent that facilitated aggression rather than cooperation.  Nevertheless, in general their approach was clear and consistent in developing integrated solutions.  As a result, the opposition appeared predictable, which allowed the PZPR to “risk” being cooperative and focus on the future instead of the past.  Finally, during the entire negotiation, the opposition was generally flexible as they were able to come up with creative solutions.  This was most prevalent during the “Second Official Proposal” where the opposition utilized the PZPR’s original framework in an attempt to formulate a creative solution that benefitted both parties.  Despite some shortcomings, the opposition was able to use this method to reach an agreement that was beneficial to both the opposition and the PZPR.   


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 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!