Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not the first person I’d turn to for contract negotiation tips. He does not have a strong reputation as a conciliator. He is not known to make nice with people. His brand is that he’s an aggressive, stubborn leader who’s quite willing to dig in his heels and pound the other side into submission.

And yet, he was able to help end The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s seven-week strike, the longest one in their history. Negotiations had been ongoing for most of that time, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement — until then-Mayor Emanuel intervened.

His contract negotiation strategy succeeded when seven weeks of negotiation had failed. In an interview published in the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel described the process he used to get the two sides to agree. He provided some valuable guidance for leaders who are called on to mediate a tough conflict.

Rahm’s contract negotiation tips

  1. Don’t appear to be biased for one side or the other. The striking musicians had asked Emanuel to walk the picket lines with them but Emanuel refused. He anticipated that he might be called on to be a neutral third party and he didn’t want to compromise that neutrality.
  2. Tell each party that the other one has agreed to the mediation.This is an old Hollywood producer trick. Let’s say you want to have Meryl Streep and Kenneth Branagh in a film. You tell Meryl that Kenneth has said yes and then you tell Kenneth that Meryl has said yes and that way you get both stars to agree. It’s a little sneaky, but it sometimes works. Perhaps Rahm learned this trick from his brother, Ari, who’s a very successful Hollywood agent. 
  3. Invite each side to lay out their position. Direct communication early on is important, so that each side can express their point of view and hear exactly what the other one wants.
  4. Separate the two sides. From that point on, the negotiator shuttles back and forth between the two sides.
  5. Set a firm deadline. According to Emanuel, he told everyone he would be leaving on Friday at 4:30 to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath. The contract was settled at 4:22.
  6. Control the document. Emanuel learned this lesson from Bill Clinton. He listened to both sides and then his team drafted a document that reflected what he had heard. That way each side reacts to the document rather than feeling they have given in to the other side.
  7. Listen for what is most important to each side. Make sure each side feels they have achieved a significant win, even though they had to give up something.
  8. Hold firm on the boundaries. Apparently, when the agreement was almost settled, the musicians made an additional demand. At that point, Emanuel got “pissy” and walked out. They reached a settlement half an hour later. 

In reflecting on the process, Emanuel said he was surprised he was able to get the union contract agreement done. As a lame-duck mayor, he had little power or influence left. But it wasn’t power that he utilized — it was savvy choreography. Perhaps his background as a ballet dancer helped him to get the job done.

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