How to resolve a difficult negotiation or harmful conflict

In my last post, I described two of our social tendencies that have the ability to create and escalate harmful conflict. 

Below are four powerful strategies we can use when conflict escalates to the point of peril and instead change course towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

  1. Offer a reasonable concession

As counter-intuitive as it may seem to many negotiators, there are few things more effective than providing a concession when trying to break out of spiraling conflict or difficult stalemate. A great example of this can be found in the detailed account of the negotiations between The United States and Iran during the Obama presidency titled “Losing an Enemy” by Trita Parisi. In his book, Parisi demonstrates how the parties broke through the consistency trap of their previous red-line demands, as well a dangerously accelerating game of Chicken:

What resolved the nuclear issue was ultimately not the pressure the two sides could bring to bear on each other, but the discarding of unreasonable and unrealistic demands – whether the American insistence on zero enrichment or the Iranian belief that it could present Washington with a nuclear fait accompli.

In this case, it was the U.S. who blinked first, deciding to play their best card up front versus holding it until the very last. This unexpected concession surprised the Iranians. They swiftly decided to reciprocate by agreeing to negotiate with the U.S. directly, itself considered an important concession. After a successful deal was finally completed in 2015 it was this chain of events that was credited for jump-starting what was widely believed to be a lost cause.

  1. Keep the communication lines open

If we are not ready to make a significant concession at the very least expressing our openness to communicate is a must. For while it is true that “active listening is the cheapest concession we can make”, it is also true that we cannot actively listen if the other party won’t talk. Similarly, we cannot expect the other party to empathize with our situation if we choose to disengage.

So how can a proactive negotiator resurrect a broken dialogue? Two methods stand out. First, we can attempt what former FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner calls one way dialogue. As he explains in his book “Stalling For Time”, one way dialogue involves addressing potential unstated questions, concerns, and fears of the other party. (President Obama attempted a variation of this on a geopolitical scale when he released a video message to all of Iran soon after his 2009 election.) Second, we can attempt to set up a private dialogue outside of the formal setting, which the U.S. and Iran did by negotiating with each other in the country of Oman secretly in 2013. Also known as “going backstage”, this avenue can allow participants to explore the idea of being flexible without having to commit too early or posture for their internal audiences.

  1. Bring in a trusted 3rd party

If communication lines exist and reasonable concessions have yet to get the ball rolling there’s either too much animosity to focus on problem solving or not enough trust to believe that positive gestures will be reciprocated. It is at this point that a respected third party can be used to formally or informally mediate the conflict. For example, Parisi describes that when the U.S. and Iran finally decided they were ready to talk seriously their secret meeting was arranged and mediated by the Sultan of Oman, one of the few leaders in the Middle East who had a good relationship with both parties. Further, at crucial points when their negotiations were on the precipice, both parties relied on the Sultan to give verbal and written assurances that words could be trusted. It is often this very ability of a third party to provide a helpful private forum, along with additional positive assurances, that creates the momentum and oxygen needed to move forward.

  1. Create an intelligent compromise

Finally, whether one or a combination of the above strategies are employed, our most competitive and challenging negotiations will usually require significant creativity.

According to social psychologists, there are five effective ways we can generate integrative solutions leading to a mutually beneficial outcome. The first is known as “expanding the pie”, which involves creating additional value through the combination of the parties’ goals and interests. The second is called “nonspecific compensation”. This involves finding alternative ways to compensate each other for concessions that cannot be matched in the same form provided. The third is “cost cutting”. Cost cutting involves reducing the amount that a party will have to sacrifice in terms of actual dollars or perceived risk. The fourth is called “logrolling”, which involves taking the specific demands of each party and evaluating what trades can be made based on how differently they are valued. (A common example is one party agreeing to pay a higher price if the other will provide more generous terms.) Finally, the fifth is called “bridging”, where the underlying interests of each party are satisfyingly addressed via an outcome that is different from their original demands. Interestingly, most if not all of these creative forms of problem solving can be found in Parisi’s account of the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran.

CONCLUSION:

“The Negotiator who suffers from myopia will fix on his or her objective and assume that there is only one alternative for getting there. The more skilled negotiator will be able to discern the connection, complex though it may be, between some new alternative and the objective which they seek.” Walton & McKersie

The beauty of each of the four strategies above is they all have the potential to provide a face-saving off ramp when on a dangerous path of escalation or stalemate. However, one party will usually have to take the lead in getting things started, implementing one or more of the various strategies in a trial and error format that will test our grit and determination. Fortunately, where there is a persistent and creative will, there often is a way.

Before The Duel – What We Can Learn About Conflict Resolution From The Negotiation Between Hamilton and Burr

Before there was the duel, there was the negotiation. And it is hard to find a better example of what not to do when trying to save face and resolve conflict than can be seen in the letters between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The incident begins when words leaks to the press that Hamilton made sharply critical remarks about Burr in front of others at a private dinner. Upon receiving word of this, Aaron Burr – having had it up here with Hamilton’s seemingly personal and malicious comments over the past years – decides to initiate an “affair of honor”, which is an elegant name for the ritual of challenging someone to a duel.

In his first letter to Hamilton beginning the negotiations, Burr starts by proposing that Hamilton make a “prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial” of whatever he said on that occasion, especially whatever was implied by the word ‘despicable’, used by a witness to describe the accusations.

If there’s ever an example of how to get a conflict resolution off to the wrong foot, it can be found in Hamilton’s first response. Instead of expressing any regret, Hamilton’s makes a fiery counter-proposal that Burr describe something specific to which he could address, flatly refusing to “enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted.” Hamilton ends the letter by telling Burr that he is confident that after more reflection he will come to “see the matter in the same light” as him. And, that if he does not or cannot, Hamilton is prepared to accept the consequences of the occasion – i.e. a duel. 

Burr responds back escalating the exchange and banter, as tends to happen when negative defensive emotions are involved. First, he rejects Hamilton’s proposal to provide more specifics. In Burr’s view, whatever was implied or said that could be taken by others against his honor and character requires restitution. Second, he decides to escalate the negotiation even further, adding a negative concession. Now, because of Hamilton’s tone and his outright refusal, Burr believes he is owed an even bigger apology than was asked for in the first letter, ominously stating, “Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.”

Noticing the dangerous turn of the negotiations, advisers to Hamilton and Burr desperately attempt to find some way for the parties to resolve the conflict and save face. However, the parties soon learn that Burr has taken defensive measures to ensure Hamilton cannot wiggle his way out without a full apology. He increases his demands by having his adviser relay that Hamilton would now need to a make blanket apology for anything he has ever said about Burr and his character, at any time, ever.

While Hamilton’s final letter does not reduce the combative tone, it is worth noting that he does provide Burr with a subtle last minute opening to give them both a way to avoid the coming hostilities, writing, “I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given. If you mean anything different admitting of greater latitude, it is requisite you should explain”.

In his final letter, Burr declines the offer, responding in a firm and formal manner explaining his belief why a duel is warranted and why his original demand for an acknowledgement based on general remarks was requested. In building his case, he also brings backs for consistency Hamilton’s challenging and daring remark that if Burr could not alter his views to match his own then a duel would be inevitable.

As we know, the duel happens, and things go tragically awry. Shortly after being hit by Burr’s fire, Alexander Hamilton, one of our greatest founding fathers is dead. 

What can we learn over 200 years later from this horrible negotiation to resolve their conflict?

First is to recognize that although we thankfully no longer have formal duels, it is very easy for our disagreements, especially when personal, to transform into harmful “affairs of honor”. It is still true that when we feel insulted or disrespected we get defensively emotional, and this defensive emotion tends to create an escalation that guides us into a destructive path of which becomes difficult to reverse.

On top of our escalation-prone defenses is the consistency trap. Often times, we say things and do things that we later regret, yet because of our social desire to maintain a consistent public face or self image we feel compelled to stand by or defend them. Usually, when conflict is resolved and face is saved, parties find a way to avoid this consistency trap with selective listening, empathetic understanding, or creatively adjusting their proposals, something Hamilton and Burr were unable to bring themselves to do.

Finally, in many everyday encounters much less dramatic we also have the tendency to speak to each other in two different languages. For example, in Burr’s letters to Hamilton he is speaking a language of common sense. In his view, it is common sense to know that if Hamilton’s remarks implied Burr had done acts that were considered despicable it is enough to warrant an apology. However, in Hamilton’s letters to Burr he is speaking in a completely different mode both legalistic and abstract. In his view, the remarks do not yet warrant an apology, because despicable could mean any number of things. It could be a soft insult, it could be a hard insult. How is he supposed to offer a genuine apology when he cannot speak to its grade?

While it might be tempting to fault Hamilton for this, how many of us have been through this same experience, where we find ourselves speaking in two different languages and the fight continues and escalates because neither party is willing looking at it from the same frame or perspective as the other person?

Unfortunately, far too often…

In conclusion, if there’s anything we can learn from the negotiations between Hamilton and Burr, I believe it is the following:

  • Because of our ritualistic need to protect face, “affairs of honor” (and pride) still exist, and these encounters spark defensive emotions, which can in turn spark unhelpful escalation.
  • We have a tendency to fall into a consistency trap, when we say or do things we feel we have to rationalize, justify, stand behind, or defend later – even though it might not be in our best interest.
  • We have a tendency to speak past each other in our own personal languages. Languages that suit our view of the situation, languages that make it easy for us to rationalize our behavior, and languages that are convenient for our consciences.

Though we live in far different times, I believe we can learn from Hamilton and Burr’s tragic negotiation to recognize and avoid these tendencies when resolving harmful conflicts in the present and hopefully less often in the future.

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