My friend Verlon taught me many lessons. One of the most interesting was how he and his wife negotiated. Each Sunday evening they would sit down to divide up the household chores such as shopping, cleaning and cooking for the coming week. Each chore had a coefficient. Each week they would negotiate who would do what on the basis of time and availability. Each week they would come up with a satisfactory list of how the household chores would be done with similar totals for each.
We are always negotiating. We negotiate with our partners; we negotiate with our friends, we negotiate with our colleagues; we negotiate with ourselves. But how to negotiate with our enemies or with someone who doesn't want to negotiate?
The art (or science) of negotiation has become a big business. Since the 1981 perennial best-seller Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, there has developed a cottage industry on how to negotiate.
From marriage counsellors to business executives to lawyers and judges, to policeman and teachers as well as diplomats, many segments of society now go through basic training on how to “get to yes.” What was once a social skill that some had and others didn't has now become a technique that is available to all.
If everyone in the world had taken a course at the Harvard Negotiation Program, we assume that there would be no conflicts. If everyone in the world understood that when confronted with a problem with someone, it is better to settle for a 51/49 solution than 100-0, we would all be in better shape. If everyone accepted that there should never be clear winners and losers in arguments, we would avoid conflicts, violence and war. Diplomacy, after all, is the solving of disagreements by non-violent means. If we were all experts in negotiation, the world would be in better shape.
But that is not the case. Not everyone is a diplomat. Not everyone is prepared to negotiate. The question, therefore, is how to negotiate with someone who does not want to negotiate. Assuming we are diplomatic, how to deal with someone who is not diplomatic?
The answer, I believe, is in the error of the title of the Fisher and Ury book. The concept of "not giving in" is a notion of winners and losers. While winning and losing are the basis of all sports events - except tie games - they have no place in diplomatic negotiations. If we begin by saying that this is my position and this is your position and who will blink first, we are reduced to a form of a chicken game that is based solely on ego and force.
Rational choice theory and its related game of Prisoner's Dilemma follow from this. They are based on the idea of power and interest, both on the individual and collective levels. For those not interested in political science, think of the movie Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean when the two drivers head towards a cliff to see who would "chicken out" first.
Instead of looking at the specific interests of individuals or groups, we could begin by asking what is the problem. If we are able to determine the problem, we can then discuss what is needed to solve the problem. Once we have determined how the problem can be solved, we can look at what must be done to implement the solution. In other words, it is only at the conclusion of how the problem can be solved that we begin to see what each person's role will be toward that actualization.
"Giving in" involves egos. It comes from a perspective that asks "What is in this for me?" A problem-solving perspective begins differently. It begins from finding a solution wherein egos are not concerned. The solution will determine what each person must do towards realizing a goal. So, there is no "giving in." Everyone must contribute in one way or another to implement the solution.
If we begin trying to find a way to negotiate with someone we are already in a potentially conflictual situation. If we begin by analyzing a situation from the perspective of problem-solving, we are not involving egos. What impressed me about Verlon and his wife's technique was that they began from a list of what had to be done. That was the beginning of the negotiation. The role of each became how to fulfill those obligations. If there was no satisfying conclusion, then the chores would not be done.
The example of Verlon and Ruth may seem exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is an example to show that by beginning from a problem-solving perspective, one can change the conflictual level and avoid concepts like "giving in." Getting to yes diplomatically is not done by force. Nor is it done by ego. In the movie Rebel Without a Cause, one of the contestants stays in his car and goes over the cliff because he is too proud to jump. How many times do we individually and collectively go over the cliff because of ego and not problem-solving?