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 Preliminary Political Package and analyze why these tactics either succeeded or failed. 

Before analyzing particular segments of the negotiation, it is first necessary to determine exactly what is being negotiated.  This is accomplished by identifying the parties, the issues at hand, the positions of the parties, and most importantly, the interests of each party.  As stated earlier, the parties included the PZPR and the opposition.  In this particular negotiation, the issue was to develop a working government that could lead Poland out of economic turmoil.  The PZPR held the position that they wanted to retain as much power as possible in the Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament); this stemmed from their interest to appear politically powerful to the Polish population, who began to view the Communist regime as a dwindling political entity.  The opposition held the position that they wanted to gain political power via increased representation in the Sejm and also sought to be formally acknowledged as a political party by the PZPR. These positions were rooted in their interest to be seen as a new viable political force in Poland.  In addition, the parties shared an interest of doing what was best for Poland, a nation for which both parties shared a deep affinity.  With these preliminary aspects of the negotiation in place, it is now appropriate to analyze particular segments of the negotiation. 


Though historians refer to the initial communication between the PZPR and the opposition as “preliminary” to the Round Table Talks, these meetings were important independently and set the tone for the rest of the “official” talks.  Transcripts from these talks reveal that, after the opposition introduced themselves and asked if their opponents would prefer to begin, the PZPR opened with a proposal for a very restricted electoral framework. Specifically, the framework including the opposition could only accept seats in the Sejm that were allocated by the Communist PZPR.  Moreover, there would be a single list of candidates who the electorate could either accept or reject.  Essentially, the new elections were to be almost identical to the old ones, except that the list of candidates would now include opposition representatives.  Archival records indicate the PZPR hoped to simply co-op a political figurehead from the opposition while simultaneously retaining all political power.  To achieve this end, the PZPR emphasized to the opposition that this “power-sharing”  was a major step forward as such a proposal by a Communist party was unprecedented anywhere in the Soviet bloc.

The response from the opposition-Solidarity was that the offer was unacceptable, if not borderline insulting.  While they did not exclude the possibility of election participation in general, the opposition stated they would regard this as a price to be paid for the legalization of Solidarity.  Moreover, the opposition rejected that it could not accept any parliamentary seats that were allocated since it would “push Solidarity towards becoming just another one of the beneficiaries and dependents of the communist regime.”  Instead, it proposed that its representatives could accept only those parliamentary seats that were obtained through competitive and free races.  Before the PZPR “political package” was rejected for the final time during this “unofficial” stage, the opposition stated it did not appreciate such tactics but would be open to discuss negotiations regarding Poland’s new political structure in the future. 


Competitive bargaining, also referred to as distributive bargaining, occurs when the parties attempt to distribute amongst themselves the substance over which they are negotiating.  The amount distributed is assumed to be a “fixed pie” and is viewed by the parties as a zero-sum exchange where whatever one side gains, the other must lose.  Here, both parties were vying for political power.  Specifically, each party envisioned a zero-sum exchange where seats in the Sejm were “won” or “lost.”  As a corollary, the parties were not seeking to work together toward an integrative solution, but instead sought to individually obtain as much political power or “fixed pie” that was available. 

The first issue in determining an offer is to decide if you want to open with the first offer or if you want the other side to make the first offer.  Opening first may be an advantage because it allows you to initially affect an opponent’s expectations about a negotiation.  At the same time, allowing an opponent to open may be advantageous as it allows the opposition to possibly set the negotiation boundaries closer to your reservation point than you might have predicted.  In the present circumstance, the opposition held more power since they were more popular with the general public.  As such, the opposition probably felt they did not need to open with an offer but could instead sit back and allow the PZPR to set the negotiation boundaries.

Offers can be described as falling into one of three zones: a zone of agreement, a credible zone, and an insult zone.  While an offer in the zone of agreement is acceptable to both parties, an offer in the credible zone requires further negotiation but is reasonable enough that the ultimate agreement may be predicted to fall between the first two reasonable offers.  Both these zones set a bargaining parameter and may be useful in predicting an agreement.  In contrast, an offer in the insult zone is so unreasonable in setting a bargaining parameter that it may cause an opponent to refuse to continue with the negotiation.  Here, the PZPR’s first offer precluded the opposition from gaining any real political power.  In fact, the PZPR attempted to enact a strict electoral framework that was virtually identical to the system in dispute.  To make this offer seem appealable, they engaged in political window-dressing and created an illusion of “power sharing” between themselves and the opposition. 

If one is to make such an extreme offer, it should be on the extreme edge of what is credible and have some rationale to support the offer.  In this circumstance, the PZPR’s offer was neither credible nor rational because it denied any political power and was so far-fetched that it insulted the opposition.  The PZPR should have made this extreme offer “soft” by stating it was just an opening proposal, then could have monitored the opposition’s response and made appropriate concessions if necessary.  Instead, they made an extreme offer with no indication it was soft.   As such, this offer fell within the insult zone, failed to set a bargaining parameter, and insulted the opposition.  Such an offer was particularly dangerous in this context since the PZPR had more to lose if the opposition chose to walk away from the negotiation.  Since they were a weaker political entity whose power was dwindling, the PZPR essentially had no alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA).  In contrast, the opposition could walk away from the agreement and still retain their popularity in the community. 

In response to this offer, the opposition employed the tactic of anchoring; altering an opponent’s frame of reference and establishing a point to which the opponent is tied.  By stating they could accept only those parliamentary seats that were obtained through competitive and free races, the opposition altered the PZPR’s frame of reference who now realized that in order to reach a negotiation, they would probably need to concede at least some free-elected seats.

While distributive bargaining inherently encourages an aggressive style that aims to overpower the other party, such tactics may be dangerous in harming the relationship with an adversary.  In this context, the PZPR’s tactic of attempting to co-opt a political figurehead may even be construed as manipulative—it was an extreme offer and stretched the facts in an attempt to make the opposition believe they were “power sharing,” when in reality the proposition retained exclusive power to the PZPR.  There are four ways to counteract an opponent who engages in manipulative tactics.  One may label the tactic by stating you recognize the opponent is using the tactic and that you would prefer to avoid using such tactics during the negotiation.  In addition, the manipulative tactic may be ignored and therefore not reinforced, which may cause the opponent to cease using the tactic.  Third, one may compete with the tactic by acting nastier than the opponent.  While this may be useful, it may further affect the parties’ relationship by making the negotiation more unpleasant.  Finally, one may “kill the other party with kindness,” which involves positive reinforcement toward an adversary.  The hope is that the other party will realize how manipulative they have acted and revert to kindness as well. 

In the present circumstance, the opposition chose to label the PZPR’s manipulative tactic by stating they recognized the manipulation and would not appreciate such tactics in the future.  This counteraction ultimately proved successful as the PZPR, perhaps realizing the opposition’s discontent and that manipulation was not beneficial in this circumstance, did not engage in such tactics for the duration of the Round Table Talks.

In sum, this first stage in this negotiation failed because of the PZPR’s failure to effectively employ tactics of competitive bargaining.  Their first offer was overly far-fetched and not credible when it should have been “soft” and aimed merely to affect the opposition’s expectations.  In competitive bargaining, the parties generally negotiate by moving from one position to another in a series of diminishing moves that usually ends in an agreement.  This “dance” follows a predictable pattern where every concession is about half the size of the concession that preceded it until ultimately the parties usually agree at the halfway point between the first two reasonable offers.  By improperly opening with an extreme offer that was not reasonable, the PZPR precluded this “dance” from occurring at all.  As a result, tensions mounted and the negotiation nearly ended before it officially began.


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!