This is one of a series of occasional Guidance Notes published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC). IHBC Guidance Notes offer current and recent guidance into topics that we consider crucial to the promotion of good built and historic environment conservation policy and practice. The Notes necessarily reflect knowledge and practice at the time they were developed, while the IHBC always welcomes new case examples, feedback and comment to firstname.lastname@example.org for future revisions and updates.
1. An ability to negotiate is a fundamental requirement that invariably appears in advertisements for public sector conservation posts but as part of the job application process, candidates are rarely, if ever, requested to demonstrate this proficiency, nor if they are appointed are they asked to do so in any formal sense subsequently.
2. Whether a practitioner is recently qualified or an ‘old hand’, there is often nothing more daunting, particularly for a single individual in an under-resourced public sector organisation, than to be faced by a large team of expensively assembled ‘experts’ on the opposite side of the negotiating table. Discussing the merits of proposals on site with an owner who knows their property intimately and what they want to do much better than the visitor can be equally fraught. Some negotiating skills to address such scenarios can be learnt on the job and be developed with experience but they are skills that are not normally taught.
3. Many IHBC members will be well aware of the often-quoted joke at their expense: Question: ‘What is the difference between a Conservation Officer and a Terrorist?’ Answer: ‘You can negotiate with a Terrorist.’
Although this is deeply insulting about the competence of professional conservation specialists, there will always be a grain of truth behind this description. The implication is that the default response to any proposal will invariably be ‘No’, but it should be borne in mind that saying ‘No’ with conviction and sound justification to ignorant, ill-informed, ill-thought-out and inappropriate proposals can be viewed as a positive rather than a negative, where clear principles, a need to maintain standards and set a high level of quality assurance to the protection of the historic environment are necessary.
4. Negotiating skills are as important in professional roles as they are valuable in everyday life. Even before becoming involved in negotiations with professional colleagues, building owners, agents and the general public there is the small matter of being successfully appointed to a professional post. As referred to paragraph 1 above, for most jobs in the public sector, it is usually necessary to respond appropriately to professional competency-based interview questions and provide evidence that these skills have been developed and perhaps that they also have value under other circumstances.
5. This Guidance Note looks at some aspects of negotiating which may assist in achieving the most appropriate outcomes; and that attaining a degree of understanding on both sides will usually ensue, even if there may not always be consensus. The Note may also be helpful in meeting the needs of the conservation professionals preparing for an appointment interview.
The skills of persuasion
6. Although the time of a conservation professional time will often be at a premium, try to prepare in advance as, for example, applicants for consent may like to reveal as little of their intentions as possible to maintain an advantage in pre-application negotiations.
7. Ensure a good understanding of what is at stake (‘the significance of the heritage asset’). This may mean familiarity not only the building or site, but also the area, the planning history and the relevant local and national policies and how these might be applied with good purpose to the project. Also aim to anticipate the generic philosophical questions or technical issues that might emerge. Preparation will help project your competence and professionalism and ensure that any advice being offered can be subsequently verified.
8. The significance of the components of the historic environment are your forte, nevertheless while empathy with a developer’s ambitions can also be a valuable attribute, do not lose sight of the value of challenging key aspects of projects where good negotiations will almost always result in improved schemes completed to everyone’s satisfaction.
Argue your case with clarity and logic.
9. Where all the key issues cannot be anticipated in advance and where discussions take on a more general or wide ranging basis (‘While you’re here I wonder if you can also give an opinion on…’); it is quite reasonable to make clear the limits of the scope of the negotiations; especially if these start to stray towards issues beyond your competence (for example an owner’s concerns about excessive nearby noise).
10. Some matters may need to be referred, for example, to English Heritage, and will require a response in writing at a later date. Explain why some additional investigation of some issues will be required before a definitive opinion can be confirmed.
11. Try to avoid hesitant language. The more you use: (‘…isn't it?’, ‘you know…’, ‘um mm…’ and ‘I mean…’ the less convincing your arguments may seem and the more intimidated you may become.
12. Heritage management has its own technical terms and its own acronyms. Be adaptable and sensitive to the negotiating situation. Try to tailor your language, for example, by not referring to ‘EH’ rather than English Heritage, or ‘SPAB’ when you mean the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Some but not all professionals will know the terms and the abbreviations but some agents, surprisingly, and many owners, may not.
13. As an acknowledged ‘expert’, explain any technical terms and try to avoid condescension or obfuscation. The use of some technical or professional language can rarely be avoided completely but try not to sound so simplistic that this implies on the one hand that you lack sufficient expertise, or underestimate the intelligence of the recipient on the other.
Focus on the needs of the other party
14. Try to establish a rapport. Although high workload pressures may preclude extended, informal, general pleasantries; taking time to listen carefully to an owner or agent can pay dividends by calmly finding out about their aspirations, general objectives and expectations. Taking a genuine interest in the people involved as well as in the proposals themselves is more likely to foster a spirit of trust, engender a sense that your own views will be respected, and make it easier to outline the heritage arguments in terms that will be understood.
15. As time pressures are likely to be important on both sides, establish a timeframe for discussions at the start. This will help to concentrate minds. The local authority may be charging a fee for the time taken for pre-application advice and the client will be paying professional advisors to obtain clear unequivocal opinions before proceeding further with a project.
16. Be sensitive to cultural and linguistic issues among agents and clients with an ethnic minority background. Consider whether interpretation facilities might be required so that legal, professional and technical issues can be correctly understood.
17. Remember also that for some large schemes, agents or clients originating from outside the UK may be more familiar with relatively unequivocal overseas zoning compliance than with the nuances of the UK heritage and land-use planning system and so an explanation of how this operates may be required at the outset.
Use positive rather than negative language
18. The aim of negotiation is to problem solve not to reject proposals outright without valid arguments. This is especially true for those cases where such lack of rigour might be unpicked should the scheme ultimately be the subject of a planning appeal. Government guidance is in favour of sustainable development, but not at the cost of protecting the historic environment.
19. There are different ways of saying: ‘Your approach to these issues is wrong…’ and you may prefer to say ‘While what you say is true, it is also necessary to consider...’. Similarly ‘…the proposals have merits but if we look more deeply into...’ or ‘I agree with what you say but have you considered the following matters...’ may present a more reasonable stance.
20. It is important to remember, however, that under certain circumstances, a clear immediate authoritative, reasoned rejection of proposals may be the best course.
21. Trying to be helpful and constructive in negotiations under some situations may actually be counterproductive. Proponents can take attempts to be reasonable or equivocation as a green light to modify or develop further, unsuitable proposals when clear advice to abandon a scheme, completely change course, or use more competent consultants, would have benefited all parties had this been made explicit at the outset.
Compliments can be helpful
22. Praise during negotiations need not be obsequious, for example: ‘I see that you've done some thorough research on this…’ or ‘I’m sure you have already considered this but…’ can show a subtle appreciation that while the proponent may have a solution in mind, it will give an opening will be made for a better one to be advanced.
Try to remember the names of all those involved
23. Recollection can be difficult when, for example, the proponent fields a large team of consultants; or there are individuals at a site meeting who appear to have an involvement but hang-back and don’t engage in the discussions.
24. It is helpful if you clearly state who you are, and anyone else who is with you in support. Then ask and note down who is present from the other side and what their role in the negotiations is. An exchange of business cards may help. Don’t be afraid to ask more than once if the name and role of a participant is unclear. If a large round-table meeting is held consider a quick sketch location plan of all the participants. Preparation and correct identification indicates that their role is valued by treating them as individuals and creates a better atmosphere for the negotiations.
Negotiating for success
25. If you have prepared in advance, without pre-judging the situation, you should usually have an outcome in mind. This may be mutually beneficial to both sides but it is likely to involve pursuing the authority’s approved policies and procedures to the exclusion of those of the proponent: (I win: you lose!). Be sure that when negotiating in conjunction with Development Management and other professional colleagues that common objectives have already been established.
26. Day-to-day negotiation has to the responsibility of professional officers. Certain decision making powers may be the subject of a Scheme of Delegations giving a wide range of discretion, but negotiators should know not only the limits of what they can agree, but also what level of other professional input may be required (for example, from building control, environmental health). When in doubt the matter should be referred upwards to a more senior colleague either for authorisation by the relevant Council committee or as an informative safeguard. Failure to be clear about the limits of what can and cannot be agreed may open later decisions to subsequent legal challenge or Ombudsman investigation.
27. Persuading proponents to do what you want them to do by completely ignoring their interests and concerns could be described as ‘keeping your cards hidden’. This is rarely the best course of action and it needs to be remembered that while this tactic may produce a short-term advantage, a longer-term resentment can build up which can be damaging if there is a need to work with these people again. This can create what is termed reputational damage to the negotiator and the authority.
28. This involves coming to an agreement where both sides get what they want, but which may or may not involve trade-offs, that is reaching a mutually satisfactory - but less than optimum – outcome, which would still be a win-win situation.
29. A strong degree of mutual trust needs to be established on both sides requiring honesty, integrity and professional competence. If negotiations take place with agents, for example, on a regular basis this will be more straightforward than in one-off situations and/or with unfamiliar participants with a less obvious track record of delivery.
30. It is usually possible for both sides working together to come up with a compromise solution to suit everyone's best interests, but the caveat above about attempting to be overly-helpful resulting in ‘false’ encouragement (paragraph 21) should be borne in mind.
31. No matter how unpalatable the other party’s track record or initial negotiating tactics may be, it is essential to look at the issues from their perspective as this may also generate potential alternative solutions while still meeting the objectives. Being assertive is the best course of action. Being passive or aggressive (however much provoked) does not help find solutions.
32. Consistency is a desirable attribute in negotiations as it is associated with honesty, stability and logic. Inconsistent negotiators are almost as bad as non-committal ones in that the former are seen indecisive and unable to commit themselves for long enough to conclude an issue; while the latter are unable to make any kind of professional decision without seeking higher authority. Inconsistency in negotiations will quickly be exposed by agents in regular contact with the same local authority officers and is an unfortunate but preventable characteristic that sometimes manifests itself, irrespective of years of working experience.
33. Finally, remember that you are the ‘expert’, with perceived specialist knowledge and with influence within the local authority (if with this status comes the attendant responsibility). The opposite side of the negotiations may be just as nervous and apprehensive about the negotiating process and the eventual outcome as you.
Tactics for successful negotiation
34. It can be difficult to think calmly under pressure during negotiations, but the following preparations and tactics can be useful:
Basic Skills: Using ideas persuasively.
Intermediate Skills: Winning the argument.
Advanced Skills: Developing strategies.
Bob Kindred MBE BA IHBC MRTPI