Setting the foundation for successful consensus building begins long before participants sit down together. Face-to-face meetings are only the middle of three distinct stages. Activities crucial to the success of a consensus building process occur at each of these stages: pre-negotiation, substantive discussions, and implementation.
- Pre-negotiation – The first stage begins with someone suggesting dialogue or negotiation and the establishment of the conditions for that dialogue. Decisions are made about who will be invited to participate; how the objective of the negotiation will be defined; what the scope of issues will include; where, when, and under whose auspices meetings will be conducted; who will chair or mediate negotiation sessions; whether meetings will be open or closed, and to whom; what deadlines will be set, if any; and what other ground rules will be established. (See also Situation Assessment and Process Design) These decisions are critical because a well-designed process provides the opportunity for each party to gain value from participating.
- Substantive Discussions – This stage begins with the first face-to-face meeting among parties and ends, ideally, with an agreement. Substantive discussions are characterized by direct exchange of views and information. (This exchange can also happen over the phone, by video-conference or on the Internet). Parties should think specifically about several discrete functions or tasks to be accomplished: information-sharing, the development of options, and closure. (See also Conducting Effective Meetings)
- Implementation – If parties are to achieve the results they are seeking, implementation is critical. Planning for implementation should occur during each of the preceding stages. Anticipating obstacles to successful implementation, creating incentives for all sides to comply with the terms of an agreement, and establishing mechanisms for ongoing communication and negotiation can all contribute to the long-term durability and stability of an agreement. (See also Successful Implementation)