Polish Round Table Talks – Part III

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 Second Official Proposal and analyze why these tactics either succeeded or failed.


In an attempt to revamp the negotiations, opposition representatives contacted their adversaries and stipulated that a negotiation was crucial for the benefit of Poland.  As a result, negotiations reconvened in early March.  Rather than commence by offering a proposal, the opposition first asked the PZPR representative if he would like to begin.  In response, the PZPR stated that it would be willing to be flexible, but was concerned about not appearing weak in the Polish community.  The opposition acknowledged this concern and agreed that it would not be in either party’s best interests to allow any faction of the government, even if it was the PZPR, to appear weak during a period of economic turmoil. 
    In presenting their proposal, the opposition reverted to the PZPR’s First Official Proposal.  From its general framework, the opposition presented a new package that included restoring the pre-World War II Senate as the upper house of parliament, the PZPR would control sixty percent of the Sejm, and the institution of a free-elected president. The opposition also insisted the PZPR legalize the Solidarity party.   Furthermore, the opposition stated that his proposal would preclude the PZPR from appearing weak since they would still play a role in the political process and controlled sixty percent of the Sejm.  Before concluding, representatives of the opposition illustrated the most glaring implication if the parties did not reach an agreement: the nation would further plunder into economic turmoil.  With the final weeks before the date of the ceremonial pact-signing approaching, the PZPR agreed to the terms and worked toward drafting a final pact. 


The opposition’s actions, which probably precluded an irreconcilable impasse, are most appropriately analyzed in the context of William Ury’s “Five Steps of Breakthrough Negotiation.”  Ury’s first step is to “go to the balcony”—that is to control one’s emotions, name the game, and figure out your interests and BATNA.  Since the opposition already recognized their BATNA and interests, the key to this step was to control emotions and name the game.  Despite the tense atmosphere, the opposition was able to compose themselves and reiterated the importance that the negotiation would have for Poland.  As a result of properly utilizing Ury’s first step, the opposition was able to bring both parties back to the table and continue the negotiation.
    Ury’s second step advocates stepping to an opponent’s side by listening to them, acknowledging their point, and agreeing with them whenever possible.  This step was utilized when the opposition acknowledged the PZPR’s concerns about losing face in the public and also when they agreed that the PZPR, as a member of the government, should be respected by the public.  In crossing boundaries and listening to the other side, one can establish good rapport with an opponent who feels their concerns are being heard.  Moreover, if an opponent feels the other side is genuinely interested in hearing their concerns, they may be more apt to revealing more about their interests.  Generally, stepping to the other side will hopefully facilitate a more agreeable atmosphere, which will be particularly useful when one is about to make an offer.
    Rather than attack, Ury advocates that one should reframe an opponent’s position.  This serves to modify an opponent’s frame of reference so they will be more willing to agree to your proposal.  In this scenario, the opposition attempted to reframe the PZPR’s position so it would appear collaborative, rather than competitive, with their new proposal.  To achieve this end, the opposition based their new proposal off the framework of the PZPR’s First Official Proposal—a political structure where sixty percent of the Sejm was controlled by the PZPR and a president held executive power.  Though the opposition’s proposal contained new elements, such as the institution of a Senate and the legalization of the Solidarity opposition, it nevertheless appeared as a collaborative solution.  In short, the opposition’s proposal was reframed from appearing solely as a product of the opposition to a solution where both the PZPR and the opposition played collaborative roles.  Since the PZPR believed they had played a pertinent role in this solution, they were more willing to accept it as a whole, even if some aspects were disagreeable. 
     By stating that his proposal would preclude the PZPR from appearing weak since they would still play a role in the political process, the opposition utilized Ury’s fourth step in “building a golden bridge.” They involved their opponents’ concerns regarding maintaining political power and not appearing weak into the proposal.  As a result, the opposition drew the PZPR in a direction toward an agreement. 
    As a final step, Ury advocates bringing the other party to their senses, not their knees.  This step advocates educating the opponent about the costs of not agreeing and was utilized by the opposition when they illustrated how Poland would further spiral into economic turmoil if the parties did not reach an agreement.  Instead of making threats and forcing an opponent to submit, this served to make the PZPR realize the negative implications of being rigid in their outlook and not granting the opposition any political autonomy.  The success of Ury’s system in this scenario exemplifies that forceful tactics do not necessarily result in a successful agreements.  Rather, what is needed to achieve a breakthrough in a negotiation may be a more integrative approach based on an analysis of thorough research.
    The opposition’s proposal also attempted to simultaneously address issues of dividing political control while not allowing either party to appear weak in the public eye.  By including both issues within the bargaining frame of reference, the opposition attempted to use the tactic of linkage.  They attempted to resolve the issue of how political power should be dispersed by proposing a political scheme that also emphasized that the PZPR would not appear weak. This illustrates how linkage may be useful to create more attractive packages.  Thus, where the PZPR would make concessions on the number of seats represented in the Sejm, the opposition could use their popularity with the public as a bargaining chip.  Though linkage may be complicated, if not risky in such a highly emotional scenario, it can be useful in helping to move along a stalled negotiation.


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
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