A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Ready, Set, Negotiate! Preparing for Successful Contract Talks

by Sharon Tufts, Catherine Hakala-Ausperk, and Catherine Monnin on May 29, 2018

Sharon Taft is a happily retired library human resources administrator. Catherine Hakala-Ausperk is an author, speaker, teacher, and owner of Libraries Thrive Consulting. She is also the editor of the “By the Book” professional review column in this magazine. Catherine Monin is a retired library administrator, leader, and mentor. She currently serves on several nonprofit boards and is a credentialed instructor on emotional intelligence with Relational Wisdom 360. Contact Sharon at tufts39@gmail.com. Contact Catherine H. at chakalaausperk@gmail.com. Contact Catherine M. at cathym6400@gmail.com. Sharon is currently studying and teaching the Book of Hosea and reading Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson. Catherine H. is currently reading The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood. Catherine M. is currently reading Grant by Ron Chernow.

The first day of contract negotiations is approaching and members of both teams are getting a little nervous. Will talks be smooth or disagreeable? Do both sides know what’s coming or are surprises in store? What is the best way to prepare for successful negotiations? Both sides can do plenty to come to the table prepared to create a contract that meets everyone’s needs.

Start with a Healthy, Respectful Culture in Place

Negotiations are coming up and you’re apprehensive. Maybe a little intimidated. Maybe you’ve never done this before or, worse, you’ve seen it done poorly. Fortunately contract talks can end well. What’s important is to prepare for success.

When do you start? When asked how far ahead of election day a library should begin campaigning to pass a ballot issue, one expert suggested starting the morning after the last election was held. The same can be true for preparing to negotiate.

Having conversations and agreement on very difficult topics will be easier if the relationship between the library board, management, and union is healthy and based on mutual respect. The strength of this relationship needs to be nurtured every day so the resulting benefits can be reaped when it’s time to meet at the table.

Whether you’re starting from scratch with a new union or you’re hoping to repair and strengthen an existing relationship before your next talks, a good place to begin to build that respect is with a clear understanding of the different roles and responsibilities of all the negotiating parties. If the following characteristics describe your teams, then you’re well on your way to successful bargaining. If they don’t, you might want to start by identifying and clarifying each side’s roles and expectations.

The role of the library board: having meetings, communicating, and interacting outside of negotiations. Reflecting respect, empathy, and a commitment to supporting the current collective bargaining agreement or, if there isn’t one yet, to the staffing policies currently in place.

The role of management: creating clear, consistent procedures and expectations as well as guidelines for implementing those policies and agreements.

The role of the union: representing the union and its members while supporting the shared strategies and clear goals of the organization. It is important that the union president or representatives are involved in developing and enacting the library’s strategic plan so that there is buy-in on goals and execution. This cooperation can be done in a way that reflects and respects the differing roles and responsibilities of the parties.

To delve further into the negotiations experience, library administrator Catherine Monnin shares wisdom gleaned from her time at the table. Monnin is a veteran of eight contract negotiations as a member of the library’s management team. She has held several leadership positions, including branch manager, area administrator, and branch services administrator. She is also credentialed as a relational wisdom instructor with Relational Wisdom 360, where the training focus is on emotional intelligence.

PL: With negotiations looming, what is the most important thing a board can do to prepare?

CM: The board members need to ensure there is honest discussion with the library director and with one another. That’s key. What concerns and remedies does the director have? Board members? How will negotiations be guided by the core values of the library—in both the process as well as the desired outcomes? When board members come to a clear and collective understanding of the library’s interests at the front end, miscommunication can often be prevented once the negotiations process begins. The negotiations process itself can bring strong pressure to bear on board and staff. Keeping focus on the library’s identified values and interests can reduce stress and help the board speak with one voice.

PL: How does emotional intelligence (EQ) contribute to a healthy library/union culture?

CM: Developing and practicing emotional intelligence will build stronger relationships, enhance individual and team performance, and help create a culture where people want to come and be a part of that experience. When I was participating regularly in contract negotiations, I noticed that the same issues would often be discussed repeatedly. I soon learned that until people felt genuinely heard at an empathetic level, they could not move on to discuss options for how the issues might be resolved. The power of empathy is profound. It can help build relationships and resolve issues at an informal level.

Specifically, emotionally intelligent people have the capacity to identify the emotions they and others are experiencing, understand how those emotions affect their thinking, use that knowledge to achieve better outcomes, and productively manage emotions.1

PL: What should negotiators—on both sides—never do during talks?

CM: When you’re away from the negotiations table, you should never talk about the issues being discussed with others, including community members or (certainly) library staff. What happens in the board sessions or at the negotiations table should stay in those sessions. Conversations with neighbors, family, or other community members could be repeated—with a twist—and suddenly there are problems that weren’t there before! It can be tempting for the board to do an “end run” around the management team with the union, but this undercuts management’s authority, and that will usually bring a negative result—both short and long term.

PL: How important is it to keep negotiations from getting personal?

CM: It is easy for emotions to increase when the conversation gets personal. This often does not end well. To become more self-aware and self-engaged, Ken Sande of Relational Wisdom 360 suggests you READ yourself accurately,2which means,

R = Recognize your emotions. In stressful situations, it can be difficult to identify what is happening emotionally in that moment. Just naming the emotion can actually help dial back the emotion and engage in more rational thinking.

E = Evaluate the source of your emotions. Reflection can help us better understand and manage our own responses. Questions could include, What is making me angry about these comments? Why am I discouraged after today’s negotiations session? Why do I need to “win” this argument? What—or who—am I willing to sacrifice in order to “win”?

A = Anticipate the consequence of following your emotions. As we anticipate the consequences of following an emotion, it can help us understand its impact on others more effectively. Will my response help or hurt this negotiation? Build or harm relationships? Build trust on behalf of the library—or hurt it?

D = Direct your emotions on a constructive course. Once an emotion is identified, understood, and its impact anticipated, redirection for an effective outcome becomes a clear choice.

PL: When substantive issues turn into conflict, what steps should both sides consider?

CM: The PAUSE principle (also Ken Sande’s work) helps remind us to be soft on people, hard on issues.”3In conflict, there is often a need to justify your position first and foremost. PAUSE helps keep the focus on respecting others and resolving the issue.

P = Prepare: get the facts, seek counsel, develop options. As you prepare for negotiations, make sure to get all the facts you can—and not just the ones that fit your position on an issue.

A = Affirm relationships: show genuine respect and concern for others. Relationships that have been nurtured over time can be quickly damaged by disrespect and thoughtless comments. Genuinely affirm the relationships and demonstrate concern for the issues of others at the onset of discussions.

U = Understand interests: identify others’ concerns, desires, needs, irritations, or fears. This requires careful listening and engagement throughout the year to make sure others’ concerns are truly understood. Once others feel “heard,” there is greater openness to exploring options that could meet the needs of both parties.

S = Search for creative solutions: use brainstorming. There is rarely one answer that will solve the problem at hand. We really are smarter together—and engaging in brainstorming can create the opportunity to identify solutions not immediately surfaced by either side.

E = Evaluate options objectively and reasonably: evaluate, don’t argue. Again, this requires deep listening skills and the ability to stay focused on the options for everyone’s interests to be met.

Picture Success

Another experienced labor negotiator, Sharon Tufts, worked in and led HR departments for more than thirty-five years, twenty-three of them in libraries. She participated in fifteen contract negotiations. That’s a lot of time at the table! Looking back, she offers these critical suggestions on how to help the entire negotiations process be more successful:

Prepare, prepare, prepare! There is no substitute for effective preparation.

The management team must know what it wants to achieve and what it can live with–financially and otherwise–and must have board buy in. Be sure you know from the outset what the bottom line is or how far you can go.

Be strategic and carefully consider who is chosen to be on the negotiations team; then, as issues are scheduled to be discussed, choose who on the team can best present that position.

Think creatively about the issues. Talk to other libraries, schools, or government agencies to find new ideas. There are multiple ways to solve any problem. Develop several and then prioritize them.

Listen in order to understand the other side’s positions—and that means both the factual and the emotional components of those positions. Doing so will help develop more thorough responses and better outcomes.

Share knowledge accurately, including financials or data on issues and concerns. On the flip side, if you don’t know the information, don’t guess. Wait and get the facts!

The teams must choose which negotiations processes will be most effective. There are several kinds of negotiations processes in addition to traditional bargaining. How do you find out more about negotiation processes? As information specialists that’s a no brainer: do some research! Search for negotiations processes and you’ll get lots of hits. After doing this “homework,” each team then discusses the options with a knowledgeable professional—e.g., your labor relations attorney and/or a commissioner from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, (FMCS, they’re free!) Both teams then come together to discuss the topic and after thorough discussion, mutually agree which negotiations processes will be used. Do not pick a negotiations process just because its trendy or all the rage in the current literature. (Even “old school” traditional processes can be effective when done in good faith and in the right emotional climate, as outlined above.)

Stress is a natural part of the process. Do something during negotiations to manage it so it doesn’t derail you! Don’t be surprised at the pressure.

Consider carefully whether an attorney or other experts (e.g., a health benefits specialist) would be useful as a part of the negotiations team.

And, most importantly, remember that both teams have a responsibility to the community, as well as ethical and legal obligations to the library staff, to effectively represent their respective positions in negotiations. Two well-prepared teams, fairly equal in their strengths, will produce a mutually satisfactory result.

Getting Help for Getting Ready

Preparing for successful negotiations should never be a solitary event. There’s just too much help out there. Make sure to plan your calendars well and leave plenty of time to prepare, and then consider looking to any or all of these resources for more support, ideas, and professional help.

From the American Library Association to its more specialized divisions to your state and regional library organizations, you’ll find everything from webinars to podcasts to articles, books, and even consulting to help your library. Take advantage of it all! Chances are, somewhere in your memberships budget, you’re already paying for this support!

  • Help yourselves, too! Don’t ever let your management or board meetings be just that—meeting stuff. Build opportunities for discussion, learning, and growth into every meeting so you become accustomed to experiencing continuous development. After all, if we preach lifelong learning to our communities, we should practice what we preach!
  • There are other libraries all around you, right? They also have managers, administrators, and boards who, more than likely, are facing some of the same challenges as you. Build networks, find mentors, tap experience, and just plain share. Learning from one another should be what we all do best.
  • Finally, think federal. As Tufts mentioned, you can get help from FMCS. This agency can offer you everything from training to mediation—once you reach out and ask for help.


Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”4 Even at the bargaining table, everyone present is working for the benefit of the library and, ultimately, the community. To achieve success, it’s important that each must come to the table prepared, focused, and committed to negotiating their way to success.


  1. Kimberlyn Leary, Julianna Pillemer, and Michael Wheeler, “Negotiating with Emotion,” Harvard Business Review (Jan./Feb. 2013), accessed Apr. 12, 2018.
  2. Both READ and PAUSE acrostics used with permission of Ken Sande, Relational Wisdom 360.
  3. Erika Andersen, “21 Quotes From Henry Ford on Business, Leadership and Life,” Forbes (May 31, 2013), accessed Apr. 12, 2018.
  4. ibid.

FMCS Training

FMCS mediators are available to provide training in the public, private, and federal sectors on conflict resolution and labor-management relations. Customized training programs can be delivered in person or remotely according to the needs of participants. Training modules are tailored to group requirements after a needs assessment. The following are some training programs:

  • Communication
  • Interest-Based Problem Solving
  • Steward/Supervisor Skills
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Contract Administration
  • Facilitation Skills
  • Labor Management Committees
  • Mediation Skills
  • Relationships by Objectives
  • Traditional Contract Negotiation
  • Collaborative Contract Negotiation
  • The Neuroscience of Conflict Resolution
  • Maximizing Mediation
  • Art of Inquiry
  • Mindfulness in Mediation: A Conflict Resolution Tool
  • The Art and Science of Dealing with Difficult People
  • The 6 Competencies of Outcome-Based Communication for Neutrals

Visit www.fmcs.gov for more information.