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People and process: A guide to effective fire service negotiations

It’s vital to know the role of emotional intelligence and how you will define success


“Chief officers, company officers and others in supervisory positions must pilot many tricky environments, including the negotiation landscape. However, unless you have spent time in an IAFF executive committee, chief officers do not typically receive such training in our industry’s leadership development programs,” writes Horton.

Photo/Marc Bashoor

By Chiefs Bob Horton and Jeff Buchanan

Among the many tools a chief officer needs to be successful in their position is the artful skill of negotiation. Negotiation skills are not limited to the collective bargaining environment; in fact, these skills transcend most of the management role chiefs have in carrying out their responsibilities. From budgets to policy development, purchasing to franchise agreements, and dispute resolution to collaboration building, negotiation is prevalent in all areas of fire and emergency services administration.

In “Negotiation Genius,” authors Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman state, “In our increasingly complex, diverse, and dynamic world, negotiation is being seen as the most practical and effective mechanism we have for allocating resources, balancing competing interests, and resolving conflicts of all kinds.” This is certainly the case for chief-level executives, including fire service leadership.

Chief officers, company officers and others in supervisory positions must pilot many tricky environments, including the negotiation landscape. And the pressure is on. However, unless you have spent time in an IAFF executive committee, chief officers do not typically receive such training in our industry’s leadership development programs.

Fortunately, there are some basic concepts that all chief officers can add to their toolbox, increasing their negotiation effectiveness. First, understand that finding success during a negotiation requires understanding people and having a process.

People: Understand the role of EQ

When negotiations heat up, it is crucial to remain calm under pressure. Remaining level-headed requires self-awareness and self-control. Not letting a negotiation emotionally escalate requires empathy and the desire to seek and understand the needs of others. All of this is achieved through emotional intelligence (EQ). After all, understanding people includes understanding their emotions.

Emotional intelligence is defined as an, “emotional-social intelligence which includes one or more of the following key components: (a) the ability to recognize, understand and express feelings; (b) the ability to understand how others feel and relate with them; (C) the ability to manage and control emotions; (d) the ability to manage change, adapt and solve problems of a personal and interpersonal nature; and (e) the ability to generate positive affect and be self-motivated (Bar-On, 2006).

A higher level of EQ allows an individual to be more in tune with their personal emotions and more accurately interpret the emotions of others. High-EQ leaders use others’ (and their own) emotions as valuable data and clues to solve the many problems that are found in the workplace (Barsade & Gibson, 2007).

When it comes to negotiations, practicing EQ means you first have to know your triggers. Know keywords, topics and actions that might intentionally (or unintentionally) provoke you. Do not let someone with negative rhetoric compel you to fire back, give an emotional rebuttal, and lose concentration. Stay focused and do not take the bait. By having emotional self-awareness, knowing your “hot buttons” and having self-control, you can stay ahead in the game of chess being played at the negotiation table. Do not let those you are negotiating against force your next move.

The next action of EQ during negotiations relies on your empathy for others and seeking to understand their perspective. Many times this happens before the actual negotiations begin. Building relationships with those with whom you are negotiating may sound cliché and non-original, but these tips are foundational to success. Practicing empathy and demonstrating your desire to understand their point of view is a way to build trust. Ask meaningful questions. This affords an opportunity for others to add clarity to their vantage point and provide you with important clues that can help lead to an agreement. Putting real effort into understanding the other negotiator’s view(s) does not mean that you will agree with them, but it gives them tangible evidence that you are considering more than just your own perspective.

EQ is a cornerstone to any negotiation strategy. Be self-aware and practice composure. Do not get drawn into verbal exchanges or provoked into actions that can damage the successful outcome of a compromise or your professional reputation. Think about the other side’s perspective and why their goal is important. Starting with EQ is the first step in the right direction for understanding and valuing people, and the beginning of an effective negotiation.

Process: Know your success mechanisms

We have a tendency to view a negotiation as a win/lose proposition when, in fact, there are other success mechanisms in a good bargaining environment.

The typical win/loss negotiation is called a distributive negotiation. This is where you seek to claim available value in the bargaining environment. Think of buying a car: The back and forth between the buyer and seller is aimed at each party maximizing gains and minimizing losses. Another type of negotiation is called integrative negotiations. This is where we seek to create value in the negotiation. This is prevalent in collaboration-building and focuses on mutual gains (Malhotra & Bazerman, 2007).

The best advice before entering into a negotiating environment is to consider two critical decision points: ZOPA and BATNA.

  1. The zone of possible agreement (ZOPA) is a range by which you are willing to reach a deal. In the car-buying example, you will have set the maximum price you are willing to pay for a new vehicle and the minimum price you might accept for trading in a used vehicle. I have seen collective bargaining where a city manager might establish the ZOPA at a X-Y% for total cost of the final package and send the negotiating team to work on the details (Hint: That is a prime environment for creating value!).
  2. The other critical decision point is what negotiation scholars calls the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). The BATNA is what would happen if you walked away from the negotiating table (Fisher, Ury & Patton, 2011). Not all negotiations end up in a deal. You must walk into a negotiation with the understanding that you might have to walk away, and you should know what that means in terms of next best options.

Negotiation tips

Now that you know your ZOPA and BATNA, it is time to enter into the negotiation.

Here are some key strategies for when you are sitting around the proverbial negotiation table.

  • Listen for understanding. Be attentive and engaged during the times when the other party is speaking. Understanding their vantage point and their goals requires concentration, your full attention, and being open to rethink your assumptions. Paraphrase back your understanding to ensure clarity of message.
  • Communicate your interests, not positions (emphasis on the aforementioned EQ). A position is a hard stance on an issue (X% pay raise) as opposed to an interest (improve quality of life through flexible work schedules, time off, deferred compensation savings, etc.). By focusing on interests, it is much easier to create value through seeking mutual gains in the negotiation (Fisher. et al.).
  • Ask meaningful questions. Engaging those with whom you are negotiating by asking open-ended questions can help build rapport as well as valuable perspective and demonstrate that you care about their point of view.
  • Focus on the problems, not the people. As mentioned, it is easy for fall into an emotional trap. Instead, redirect your focus on the issue trying to be resolved.
  • Finally, ask yourself, “Is what I see all there is?” (Kahneman, 2011). We often look at the options on the table a binary, this or that. Instead of seeing the choice as A or B, consider what options C, D or E could offer the situation.

Hone your skills

Being an effective negotiator requires deliberate preparation and practice, plus the development of a keen awareness to both the elements of people and process. The aforementioned tips will add tools to your leadership toolbox and give you a better chance at maximizing value during your next negotiation!


  1. Bar-On, R. (2006). “The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI).” Psicothema.
  2. Barsade, S.G., & Gibson, D.E. (2007). “What does affect matter in organization?” Academy of Management Perspectives.
  3. Malhotra, D., & Bazerman, M. (2007). “Negotiation genius: How to overcome obstacles and achieve brilliant results at the bargaining table and beyond.” Bantam.
  4. Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (1991). “Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in.”
  5. Kahneman, D. (2011). “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Macmillan.

About the Authors

Bob Horton, MPA, CFO, CPM, is the fire chief for Fire District 3 in Jackson County, Oregon. Horton is a Board Director for the Western Fire Chiefs Association and the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association. He serves on the IAFC’s Communications Committee and is a 2019 graduate of the IAFC’s Fire Service Executive Development Institute (FSEDI) program. Horton hosts the podcast, Assuming Command, featuring thought leaders, influencers and innovators in public service. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Jeff Buchanan is a retired fire chief with more than 21 years of public safety and government experience, now working as a consultant and principal at The.Buchanan Group LLC. Buchanan began his full-time public service career in 2001 with the North Las Vegas Fire Department (NLVFD). In 2013, he was appointed as the fire chief for the NLVFD, and 7 months later accepted a dual role when he was named the interim city manager. He later served as fire chief for Las Vegas Fire and Rescue (LVF&R), with oversight of day-to-day operations for more than 800 employees and a total budget that is in excess of $200 million. Buchanan is an adjunct instructor in the Master of Urban Leadership program at UNLV and an instructor at the College of Southern Nevada. He has instructed and developed curriculum in leadership at the National Fire Academy and various other locations in the state and throughout the country. Buchanan is a published author and has the qualification of Executive Fire Officer (EFO) and Chief Fire Officer (CFO). Buchanan holds a Master of Business Administration, Master of Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Policy (DPP).